O My Country!, A Maghreb folktale, Retold by Anne Twitty

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

King Salomon knew the language of all living creatures, and all obeyed him, especially the birds.

One day this great king, a master of wisdom, was sitting on his throne. He was deep in thought. He was thinking that all paths of knowledge are useless if they do not lead to the origins of the world and to its end.

Salomon had read in The Book of how God had created Adam in Paradise, had sent him out of it, and had set the Angel Ridhwan, armed with his sword of fire, to guard the gate. Among all the descendants of Adam, no one on earth knew where Paradise lay.

From time to time Salomon lifted his head and gazed out of the window at the palace gardens, at the rare and most beautiful plants that grew in them.

His gaze was drawn to an enormous tree whose branches spread out endlessly into a thousand smaller branches. On all these branch­es, a maze of branches, perched myriads of his faithful friends, the birds.

And then from out of the tree came a great eagle. It flew toward the palace, flew in through the window, and settled at the foot of the throne .

Salomon asked how old the eagle was. The eagle answered, “Your Majesty, I do not know how old I am, but I do know that have spent one hundred years on each branch of that great tree.”

In a flash of clarity, Salomon saw an answer to his meditations on the origin of the world. He realized that to spend one hundred years on each branch of a tree with thousands of branches was a way of rising back up the steps of time and reaching Paradise.

“Then you knew Paradise?”

“Yes indeed, Your Majesty.”

Salomon rose. He took a little pebble. Placing it in the eagle’s beak, he said, “Go, search the horizons, cross seas and deserts! I command you to discover its foundations once again, and to drop this pebble into the center of the place that once was Paradise.”

So it was. The eagle flew for a long, long time. At last, he saw below him the foundations. He soared in great circles around the ruins of the ancient Paradise, and let the pebble drop in the desert, in the very heart of Eden.

When the eagle returned to the palace, King Salomon gave orders that this venerable witness of Paradise should be treated with the greatest respect. A nest of soft white cotton was prepared for him, and he was given nothing but the hearts and livers of young lambs to eat.

And, in spite of all this, the bird, his head hanging low, was plunged in sorrow. In his heart he held a craving for the lost Paradise whose traces he had found. There he longed to return.

Over and over, he murmured his lament:

Ouatana, ouatani!
Oua la ouasiat al koursi
Oua la raqdi fil quotni!

O my country! O my country!
Away with grand thrones
and beds of soft cotton! ♦

From Parabola Volume 10, No. 2, “Exile,” Summer 1985. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing