When the water first left us, so did the birds.
Manzour1, the great white pelican, no longer flew over our disappeared shores. His excessive grunt was arrested, he was denied the pleasure of dipping his feet in the water like before.
When the water first began to leave us, it was the year 20302 and panic ripped through our town like a swarm of locusts. The fishermen, in the dead of night, called on their mystic, Umm Qays, to perform the ritual of Irja’ ya bahr, whose song asks for the return of the sea. Umm Qays emerged from her abode, a clay house with white windows, carrying a bright flame that revealed the kohl under her eyes. ‘Said and Radi, take me to the manba’3,’ she said to the youngest of the fishermen. Arriving at the last source of water, she knelt in front of it, kissing the sand, and as her lips drew to the shore it turned crimson.
‘Said, Radi, lift me up,’ she said. She sat on their shoulders as her words poured down. ‘Irja’ ya bahr, enough oh sea, Irja’ ya bahr, enough oh sea, Irja’ ya bahr, enough oh sea.’ She commanded the water to end its mischief.
Said and Radi, with their limbs arranged in perfect symmetry, lifted Umm Qays higher as her voice got louder. Her words entered their bodies, and as they chanted they formed a single tapestry of sound: ‘It is your Lord who drives the ship for you through the sea that you may seek of His bounty. Indeed, He is ever, to you, merciful!’
Umm Qays licked the flame she was carrying in her arm and it grew into a majestic, bright light. It took over the sky, covering the few stars. ‘Now,’ she said, as she buried the flame in the water. The fishermen, with their eyes falling to their knees, recited silent prayers, hoping the extinguished flame would bring an end to their anguish.
But their optimism was cruel, as was Umm Qays’ promise. The water did not return.
After years of drought, our government officials, hiding behind failed bureaucracies, declared 2035 as the Year of Rejoice. Our Sultan, in a symbolic gesture, returned to his Sea Palace from the royal suburbs of Multaqa. The palace resembled a boat navigating gentle waves, the kind that appeared after the first autumn rains. Perched on the coast, the palace’s ornate tones glittered at sunrise. Its roof was encrusted with gold, from the royal family’s history of trading gold between the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. Danshal4 arched over the main entrance, as it did over the tight alleyways of our local souks. The balcony floors were covered in green marble from Damascus. A 50-year-old Sidra tree stood on one side of the palace’s grand facade. On the other, a one-storey-tall frankincense burner, adorned with palm trees made of silver.
Now, after these years of drought, the Palace stood over a swamp. The Sultan did not care that the waves no longer danced around him. When he gave his speech, he stood on the balcony. He uttered a strong Bismillah before announcing, ‘The waves suspended between earth and sky shall return to the shores of Multaqa!’ He was joined by a representative from Huawei who proclaimed, ‘Multaqa will now become the first city in the Arabian Peninsula to pilot a holographic shore.’ Together, they declared: ‘We present project Amwaj!’5
Engineers began drilling along our coastlines, their machines spreading like tentacles. They installed sensory imitation pods, which emitted one holographic wave after another, and we watched in disbelief. The pods produced waves by releasing small droplets that looked like tears. As the tears touched the sea bed, they joined together, and the waves grew like bacteria growing under a microscope. Soon, we could hear the sea again.
At first, the public was outraged. ‘Heresy!’ the newspapers wrote. ‘Incantations and deceit,’ a father proclaimed as he forced his son to look away from the Corniche, a seaside promenade dotted with our Sultan’s favourite tree, the Ghaf. But as the waves grew larger, our suspicions grew smaller. Amwaj, with all the seduction of a water nymph, invited us to sit by the shore. And a legion of our birds, big and small, from the nightingale to the mynah, entered our sky, frolicking high and low, until their webbed feet touched Amwaj and they felt no water.
I visited Thamra6 beach in the hope of sighting a swimmer or a boat. All I saw was a handful of fishermen, sitting on the sand, staring blankly at Amwaj as they reconciled it with their memories of the sea. Our Sultan had privatised the coast, and now it was full of western franchises. I passed a Ritz Carlton designed by Zaha Hadid, whose circular shape resembled the devil’s horns, prompting the locals to call it al shaytan al akbar.7 I stood outside the Four Seasons building, designed to look like a seashell caught at the moment it opens, and tried to remember what Thamra beach used to be. The local kitchens that served shrimp machboos8 and shacks that celebrated the launch of mango season were gone. They would compete in selling the sourest mango, a summer delicacy dusted with salt. The aromas of salty mango, cardamom and garlic were replaced by the smell of asphalt, heating like crude oil under our boiling sun.
Eventually, my longing for the sea grew too intense. ‘Enough is enough, I must go for a swim,’ I yelled to no one in particular. I undressed and faced the water, wondering if it held the memories of my swims. I ran toward the shore and at the first sight of a wave, I dived, and for a split second it was as if the whole world had resolved itself. A wave carried me, and I trembled between its nerves. It was strange to encounter love again.
As I lifted my head from the water, I felt no saltiness. My body, though shriveled, was not wet, and my hair intact. My diving, though wicked, left no ripples. I turned to float on my back and gazed at the sky. I heard a familiar sound. A shrill that I had not heard in years, it was Manzour. There he was, moving through cloaks of humidity as he flew across Multaqa. ‘Come here, I have fish for you. Come Manzour!’ I called to him. He stared back, and his eyes wore a pitiful look. I understood that he would never return.