Monday, 16 May 2016

White Bird, Dark Sky


(In order of appearance)
Zakir, her husband
Mumtaz, their daughter
Imad, their son
Fatima, their neighbour
Yassir, Fatima’s son.

Stage: The action is set entirely inside a single room in a West Asian house in a small town. The furnishings and decor must be generalised – not particular to one or other ethnicity, Yemeni or Afghan or Pakistani, Arab or Pashtun. It might be a good idea if the various actors are clearly of different ethnicities, with different skin tones and accents, even though they belong to the same family.

The room has heavy ceiling beams, which give an appearance of making the space smaller than it is. There is a divan against the wall facing the audience, before which is a large table hung with a heavy green tablecloth, chairs around it. Beside the divan is a bookcase with a few books; as far as they are visible to the audience they should have covers in Arabic, Urdu or Persian script. On top of the table there should be a child’s school satchel, exercise books and a geometry box. There’s a fireplace to one side, with soot-stained wall above it. There are two doors, opening left stage and right stage. A single window is in the middle of the wall facing the audience, above the divan. It is covered by a curtain, which can be drawn aside. When it is drawn aside, the audience should be able to see, as required, either dark grey sky or blue.

The lighting, which should be predominantly from one side of the ceiling, should concentrate on the stage centre, on the divan and the table, leaving the corners of the room – the sides of the stage – in shadow. The whole atmosphere should seem enclosed and oppressive.

Scene One: Morning

As the CURTAIN rises, SORAYA is seen picking up the satchel, geometry box and books from the table and putting them on top of the bookcase. She is around forty, dressed in a robe with a scarf loosely wrapped round her head. Her features are clearly visible, as are those of all the characters. ZAKIR is sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper intently. He is the same age as SORAYA, well-built, with a short beard, dressed in a T shirt over pyjama bottoms.

SORAYA: Imad, come for breakfast. Imad? You should come for breakfast now
Morning, I told you, is the time for freshness and a new day.

ZAKIR (without looking up from his paper): He’s still in bed, I think.

SORAYA (shaking her head): Again. That’s the third time this week. At this rate he’ll miss school again. And you sit there and read your paper, all unconcerned.

ZAKIR: So what do you want me to do about it?

SORAYA: Did I say anything to you? I try and not distract you from things
That are important to you. You know that. You’re the man of the house
You need to keep in touch with what’s happening in the world.
That’s why you sit there reading the paper
While our son lies still abed
And our daughter, out, somewhere.

ZAKIR (folding the paper with irritated rattle): All right. I’ll go wake him. Where’s Mumtaz?

SORAYA: I don’t know. She didn’t help me make breakfast, and when I went to see,
Her bed was empty. I no longer know what she’s thinking
I no longer know what you’re thinking.
I live in a house of strangers
Strangers whom I used to know.

[Enter MUMTAZ from stage left. She’s quite pretty, in her late teens, in old jeans and a sweatshirt, her head uncovered and hair tied back.]

MUMTAZ (looking from SORAYA to ZAKIR): What’s going on? Are you two arguing again?

SORAYA: And where were you? What were you doing out at this time of morning?

MUMTAZ (shrugs): Out. I went for a walk. I couldn’t breathe any longer inside this house.
These rooms where I was born
This air, which I learnt to breathe
Are no longer mine, no longer do I recognise them.
A prison for my body, a prison for my soul
And inside my heart an empty hole.

ZAKIR: It’s not safe out. You know that. And you shouldn’t dress like that. People see and talk.

MUMTAZ (laughs): Is it safe inside the house, Father? Is it really? As for dressing like this, I slept like this. I sleep with everything but my shoes on these days. In case I have to run in a hurry, you know. (Looks around.) Where’s Imad?

SORAYA: He hasn’t got up yet. Your father was about to go and get him.

MUMTAZ: Can’t you let him sleep? He was screaming again last night.

ZAKIR: What about?

MUMTAZ: How can I say? Dreams, I suppose. I dream myself,
I dream about that day. Spring was in the air
Leaves and flowers bursting out through the skin of the trees.
I could still breathe then, without knowing dread. Do you remember that day
When my breath died in my throat?

SORAYA: Mumtaz – we all remember it.

MUMTAZ: We remember it, you say? Is that what you say, Mother?
You remember the day I was out with Arifa – who used to call you her aunt, Mother
And who told me she wished she could call you Mother too.
Do you remember her face?

SORAYA (setting breakfast dishes on the table): We all do.

MUMTAZ: Then you’re better than me, Mother, luckier as well.
You have memories, I have but a piece of hell.
All I remember of that day was being out with her, and it was her sister’s wedding too
We looked for flowers and I told her a joke about how she’d find her Prince Charming
And we went to her house – where her brothers and her father made me welcome
And then do you know what happened then? You weren’t there, Mother
But you remember what happened?
The day when they carried me home
No mark on my body, in my breast a stone?

ZAKIR: Mumtaz, please.

MUMTAZ (ignoring him, her words overlying his): I’ll tell you what I remember,
I’ll tell you what I do.
I remember laughing as Arifa’s brother put on music, and her sister blushed
I remember helping put henna on her feet, I remember kissing her cheek
And Arifa said something, and I turned, because I loved to see her smile.
And then the sky fell apart, Mother, around Arifa’s head
The world fell apart around Arifa’s head
Like lightning, but not lightning, flung metal and the breath of fire
And Arifa had no face anymore.
That is what I remember, when I think of her now.
My friend, my sister in all but name
With whom I’d grown up, left
A face without a face.
Her sister, whose marriage it was
Whose feet I put henna on
Now has no feet left. No feet, no legs
And now, Mother, Father, tell me, do
Now that I’ve said what I remember, Mother, Father, what of you?

SORAYA: Mumtaz, this isn’t helping.

MUMTAZ: Perhaps it isn’t, perhaps it is. I no longer know.
But I can’t breathe without air
And lately there is no air anymore.

[Enter IMAD, stage right. He’s about ten or eleven, tousle-haired and in shorts and a T shirt, obviously just having got out of bed.]

IMAD: I had the dreams again. I had the dreams again.

SORAYA: Come, sit down, you can tell us about it later.

IMAD: I have to see first
If the sky is foul or fair.
[Goes to window, pulls aside curtain, revealing dark grey sky to AUDIENCE. Lets curtain drop.]
A grey sky, a sky grey as slate
For the moment this is salvation
For the moment, Allah’s will is great.

ZAKIR: Imad, sit down. What did you dream about
That brought you screaming awake at night?

IMAD: It’s the same thing every time
The white bird in the blue sky
Hovering overhead;
High overhead, like a second sun
It hangs; and follows me when I run.

SORAYA: And last night?

IMAD: Last night I was playing football in the street
And it was overhead – white and pure
White as death, on wings like the death of hope.
And it came swooping down
On us as we were playing in the street.
And then everyone was gone
And I was playing alone
On an iron plain. No light, no sky
Nothing  to see and nowhere to go
Just I alone.

MUMTAZ (Reaching out to touch him): And the drone.

IMAD: And the drone.
(Sips water from a glass – nobody has eaten anything yet)
Once I loved it when the sky was blue
Now, unless it’s slate-grey, I’m afraid.
The blue sky is the death sky
When the white bird comes.

MUMTAZ (to SORAYA and ZAKIR): You see what he’s going through?
(Gets up, wanders around the room, picking things up and putting them down again.)
It wasn’t that long ago, was it
When we could walk free out in the street?
I think I can still recall
When a boy could kick around a ball
Without him waking from terror-dreams
It wasn’t long ago – but how far it seems.
(Goes to window, and pulls aside the curtain. The sky is still grey)
Last night I saw a meteor streaking down
And I thought it was a missile on the town.

ZAKIR: We are all suffering, you know
Even if we don’t always say so.
Each time I get in the car
I don’t know if I’ll be called a fighter in their other war
I don’t know if the time will come
Though I’ve never harmed anyone.
I think, too, I dream as well
I feel hollowed, a living shell.

SORAYA: It can’t last forever. Can it?
I keep telling myself it can’t.
Why is nobody eating? Will none of you eat?

MUMTAZ: I don’t think anyone wants breakfast.
Come on, Imad, get ready. I’ll walk you to school.
Both of us can use time out together.

[Exit MUMTAZ and IMAD stage right.]

SORAYA (gathers up dishes): This I know, this I can say
The fear will kill us all in time
As surely as the drones will.
There are different ways to pay the butcher’s bill.

ZAKIR (gets up and tries to help her, but she waves him away): I’ll be getting ready for work.
You should think of other things.
The world still goes on, turning
It was there before we were, it will be there after we’re gone.
What can we do to help our son sleep
To make our daughter forget her friend?
Should we leave this all and go away
For a life in a refugee camp?
You know what it’s like there. We will live through this.
People have suffered before, will suffer again. (Exits stage right)

SORAYA (distressed): How can I see, what can I do?
I should be the strength of the house
The wife, the mother, the everything
And I feel it all slipping away.
Should I tell of what I’ve seen
The dreams of blood seeping up from the soil?
Should I tell of the fear I feel
Each time my children and my husband leave the house
That I’ll never see them again? What would they make of it
If I told them I saw myself, up in the sky
Flying like the drones, on wings of light –
The houses, the people, laid out far below
Like insects – like a sprawl of crawling insects
An ant hill, no more?
(Comes stage front, addresses AUDIENCE. Lights dim except for spotlight on her, illuminating her only.)
They say those who fly the drones know stress and fear
But in my dream I felt the bloodlust near.
I wanted to swoop, to kill and burn
And I knew I could do it. I was a god
And these were as toys for me, to play with.
I saw my son walk to school
I saw my husband drive along the street
I saw myself, too –
A woman in a headscarf, an insignificant thing
Less than human, less than an insect
I saw myself, and I wanted to destroy
This creature that could feel neither hope nor pain.
What if I told my husband that I lay beside him
Dreaming of ending him, ending this life
Ending everything? What would he say?
What do I say to myself when I think
I dream about this every day?
Tell me, must it be this way
Because of which god to whom we pray?
What have I done, what can I do
To make my life seem real to you?

[CURTAIN. End of Scene One]

Scene Two: Afternoon

As the CURTAIN rises, we see that there are a few changes. The satchel and school things are gone from on top of the bookcase, but ZAKIR’s newspaper is there now, folded. The books should be moved around a little. The chairs are in slightly different positions. There is a fresh tablecloth – perhaps red instead of green. Most of all, the lighting should be changed around. If earlier it was coming mostly from stage left, now it should be coming from stage right. However, it still only illuminates the middle of the stage.

All characters who have appeared in the earlier scene will have made costume changes. SORAYA will be wearing a gown and a headscarf of different colour. IMAD will be in a salwar-kameez. MUMTAZ will wear a different shirt and jeans. ZAKIR will have on a light-coloured shirt and dark trousers.

[Enter SORAYA, carrying an empty vase which she puts down on the table.]

SORAYA (stepping back and looking at the vase): If only I could put flowers in this.
I don’t remember when last we had flowers.
Sometimes I think these things matter, and then again I think they don’t.
(Goes to divan, pulls aside the curtain long enough for the AUDIENCE to see that the sky is blue.)
The clouds are gone
Blue sky, bird sky
The birds will be on the wing again.

[Enter FATIMA, stage left. She’s about the same age as SORAYA, and also dressed in other “traditional” clothing. Perhaps a burqa, but with the face left bare.]

FATIMA: Soraya, my sister, I need to talk to you.

SORAYA (Surprised, but welcoming): Sit down, Fatima, dear.
It’s been too long since you came to call.
I hope all is well?

FATIMA (sits): Well? I cannot say
By Allah’s grace, my family is not ill.
Not in body – but as for the soul
You know, I know, how things are.
I grow worried about my son
More worried, each and every day.

SORAYA (nodding): I grow worried about mine.
How old is Yassir now?

FATIMA: Twenty, young and headstrong
And the men with guns came last night to talk to him
They told him he had a choice to make,
A choice of deaths, he had to see
Die on his feet a warrior
Die on his knees a slave.
A slave to cowardice, they said, he’d be
If he listened to such as me.
Fight and die, or be slaughtered still
At a button-press by a foreign will.

SORAYA: And what does he say?

FATIMA: I think he will go with them.
I know he will go with them.
I fear he will go with them
Tomorrow, if not today.

SORAYA: Can you stop him? I know you have thought about this. Can you? Will you?

FATIMA: He needs responsibilities, something to hold him down
Something to keep him throwing himself away.
I was thinking – your daughter and he
They’re of an age, they’ve known each other all their lives
If they married, it would be what he needs,
It could be what she needs.
Someone to love, an anchor to keep him tied to life.

SORAYA: I must think about this.
I live in fear of what might be
I live in fear of what is.

FATIMA: We all do.
I taste fear in every breath.

[Enter IMAD, carrying the satchel, which he dumps on the table.]

FATIMA: Well, here you are. How was school today?

SORAYA: Put your things away, like I told you
It seems you never listen, no matter what I do.

IMAD: It’s there, above the house. It was there above the school.
It followed me home, Mother
It followed me home today.

[FATIMA and SORAYA glance at each other. FATIMA rises to her feet.]

FATIMA: I must go.
I must go and see
What’s going on at home, what’s going on with Yassir, with my son.
What I dread to know – it calls, it calls to me. [Exits, stage left.]

SORAYA: Don’t think about it, don’t worry about it.
You’re back home, you’re safe.
I’ll keep you safe, with my blood and body if need be.
Don’t be afraid any longer now,
Come to my arms, come to me.

[Enter MUMTAZ, stage right]
MUMTAZ: I’m glad you’re back
I have been worried today.
If I close my eyes
I can see the sky
And dark shadows against the sun
I am glad you’re home today.
[She goes to IMAD’s satchel, begins to take out books and put them on the table, and suddenly pauses, looking at a sheet of paper.]
What’s this? Mother, look at this.

[SORAYA crosses to MUMTAZ, looks at the paper, and claps her hand over her own mouth in shock.]

SORAYA: Imad, what is this? I did not know you could draw like this.
Is this really what you see
This desert of blood and burning stone
While drones with cruel claws soar above?
And is this your face
Are these your eyes?

MUMTAZ (hugging IMAD, who buries his head in her bosom – he is crying): This is the fear he lives in
This is how a person dies
Not with fire and an instant of pain
But with dread that drives one mad
This is how we live. This is how they make us live.
I can’t forget this, and I will not forgive.

SORAYA: You too? You too feel this way?
I wish I never had to see this day.
MUMTAZ: Mother, tell me, what world is this
Where we have no right to anger
No right to sorrow? What world is this
Where we are as nothing?
I look in the mirror, Mother, and the face I see
Has no meaning to me.
These eyes of mine, this hair, this skin
A mask made of some evil sin
Beyond anything that I understand
A sin that lies upon this land.
Are we human, Mother? Are we people too?
What does it seem to you?

[Enter ZAKIR and YASSIR. YASSIR is dressed in a vaguely military-appearing outfit, perhaps a green T shirt and khaki cargo trousers. He is gesturing and talking angrily as they enter.]

YASSIR: But I tell you, once more
We did not invade their lands
Our flying death machines do not hover over their homes.
They do not feel the dread we do –
To them we’re exhibits in a human zoo
To do with as they will
To let live one more day, or murder for a thrill.

ZAKIR: And to you the solution is this?
To inflict fear on them, to make their children cry?
Do you think that will pluck the wind from the drones’ outstretched wings?
Will the tears of their women lead us to better things?

YASSIR: And what are we doing now? Where goes this way?
Ask yourself this, ask this now, today.
You’ve fought once – you know what war is
And you know as well what to call this.
If nothing else, our honour is at stake –
You can choose to answer the call
Or be pushed to your death against a bloodstained wall.

ZAKIR: Yes. I have held a gun once
I know what it is to kill.
And that is why I will not hold one again.
[Sees SORAYA with the paper in her hand and IMAD hugged by MUMTAZ.]
Our young friend came home with me
He had things to explain, you see
Things that he believes, true enough
Hard as crude diamonds in the rough
He wants to hold a sword up high
Hack the drones out of the darkling sky.

YASSIR: That, yes, is very true
But I had hoped for help from you.

SORAYA: Yassir, your mother was just here.
She left to look for you
Because she was terrified of what would happen.
Don’t you think she wants you to live?

YASSIR: Do you call this living? Is this life?
I would call it our throat to the knife
Not knowing when the blow will fall
Cowering under death’s ever present pall
Dying a thousand deaths each moment, now
I won’t go on like this, I swear a vow.
Our killers laugh and call us names
And treat us like pictures on their video games.
A button-press, a screen aglow –
Afterwards they take their children to the show.
You won’t help, that’s fine with me
I’ll go my way alone, you’ll see.

MUMTAZ [Comes to YASSIR, looks up into his face]: You’ll get help from me.
If from nobody else.
Horrors too many to keep in check
My mirror reflects a stranger, my brother a mental wreck.
The blood flows, the blood will flow
It will drown us all, no matter which way we go.

SORAYA: Mumtaz, I forbid this.

MUMTAZ: Listen, Mother. [Points to the ceiling]
Can you hear the noise? Can you hear the drone?
Do you think if I remain silent, it will leave us alone?
I made my choice. I’m going my way
Perhaps I will be back one day.

[Exit YASSIR and MUMTAZ, stage left.]

SORAYA: Mumtaz, wait! Yassir!

ZAKIR: I’ll go and talk to them
I’ll get her back. A minute, no more
I swear to you, I’ll bring her back.

IMAD: I’ll go too
I don’t want to leave her out alone
I see her face in my dreams, Mother
Shattered like a glass on stone.

[Exit ZAKIR and IMAD, stage left.]

SORAYA: Shut the door. Come in and bar the door!
Shut out the tides of fear, keep them outside
I can’t take this anymore.
[Comes stage front, slips to her knees, still holding the paper. Addresses AUDIENCE as the lights go down, illuminating her only.]               
I feel my heart being torn apart
At each beat, I feel the tearing of my heart
My world torn to pieces, thus.
[Tears paper to pieces]
All I knew, crushed to dust.
What I thought, was told, would be
Turned to a stick of wood, a withered tree.
Whatever I say, I do, is wrong
All I hear is the executioner’s song.
[There is a sound of an explosion close by. SORAYA starts to rise, and then slips back down.]
I don’t want to know what happened there. Or rather, I know
Today or tomorrow, it will be the same blow.
Somewhere the sun shines, here the darkness falls
And death stalks through our lives' stricken halls.

[Enter ZAKIR, IMAD, MUMTAZ, FATIMA and YASSIR, from stage left, but they are seen only in silhouette. It is impossible to say if they’re real, or ghosts. They silently line up behind SORAYA and look at the AUDIENCE.]

SORAYA (to AUDIENCE): Is this what I see? Is this false or is it true?
What do our lives and deaths mean to you?
Is this what hell is meant to be?
Tell me, world, explain this to me.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2016


  1. "What have I done, what can I do
    To make my life seem real to you?"

    You are their voices, Bill. In so many ways, you have given life to those across the world whom we kill. In story, in poem, in picture, and now in a stage play, you have given them humanity.

    1. Great comment. But many more people need to read what Bill writes. Most don't know any of this. According the the official US/UK press, the drones have NEVER killed a single innocent. Those 2 year olds were all proven murderous jihadists, heinous criminals under International Law, and the drone operator make the world a better, safer place by killing them.

      And that's all most people ever get to read.

      I just wish Bill's stuff were stuck in front of them.



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