Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Rare Bird: Asfour Nader

In my 8 years of blogging, first privately as I shared family news with a selected private audience, then publicly sharing thoughts I wrote in English and in Arabic, this is the first blog post I did NOT want to write. But here I am writing it because I felt I had to.

Why am I doing this to myself? I guess it’s because I fell in love with a boy who was 12 years old, and forever will be. I fell in love with a boy I’ve never met, and I never will. I fell in love with a boy called Jack. I heard about Jack during the first few months of mothering my daughter. Those long days and nights that looked all the same as I tried to navigate this new life with a toddler boy and a new born girl were extremely lonely and I needed something, anything to help me survive.

My sister’s friend shared an article from Momastery on her facebook page and that’s how I got to know Glennon, so I started reading her posts which one day lead me to Anna’s blog “An Inch of Grey” and the story of Jack’s accident. It was easy to do the math, Jack died two weeks after my daughter was born. Later I’ll start hating math because it revealed so much of what I had in common with Anna, only a decade ahead of me. In the fall of 2011 Anna was 42 years old and I was 32. Her jack was 12 and my son was 2, her Margret was 10 and my daughter was a few months old. We’re both Christian, believers, church goers, and English teachers, veterans to be more specific, neither one of us is teaching now (or was teaching 4 years ago) and I’ve recently developed a love for painting furniture to decorate my gift shop/art gallery Kharbashat-Doodle. Then gradually over the past 4 years my son seemed to have so much in common with Jack. He too loves words, Legos, acting, jigsaw puzzles, and making up new games. He is kind to his sister (also 2 years younger than him) and he loves his Sunday School class as his love for God is starting to show and grow. Did I mention how cute and funny he is too?

I mourned with Anna, I grieved with her overseas. I wrote her a few e-mails and comments telling her that a Syrian mother married to an Egyptian pastor is praying for her and sending her love all the way from Alexandria, Egypt. Then when Anna posted a question on her blog for readers to choose the best title for her upcoming book about Jack, I clicked on the one choice that seemed to make most sense “Rare Bird”, apparently many readers and friends picked the same title and the book was out. When I started planning to ask my sister to order it for me and send it with someone coming from the US to Egypt, I received a message from one of my American friends, Jessica, who is also a pastor’s wife asking if there’s a certain book I’d like her to buy me because a guy from their church is coming to spend a few months in Alexandria!

Jessica’s sweet gift sat on my night stand for months. It wasn’t until last week that I decided to read “Rare Bird”, From the first few pages I knew two things, I need an extra dose of courage to continue and I’ll end up writing something about this book. I hated it and loved it at the same time. Anna's writing style, the way she crafted words and sentences with both language skills and honesty was captivating. She took me with her back in time to the last few months of 2011 and to a brand new state not included among the five I’ve visited when I went to the US in 1996, 2000, and 2001. I felt I was physically right there on September 10th 2011. I rarely cry when I read sad novels, but this is not a novel, it didn’t even feel like a book at all, it felt more like a movie, one of these 7D theaters in which you experience the story with more senses than you thought you had. I was stupid enough to take the book with me once as I waited for my son to finish his piano lesson, and I started crying! I wonder what the other parents in that waiting room thought, she looks like a crazy mother, she doesn’t look Egyptian, she’s holding a book in English, we pity her son…. I don’t know and I didn’t care.  

I received the book months ago, and the timing I chose to read it was a bad one , we’ve just celebrated my daughter’s 4th birthday which meant that in a few days Anna, along with everyone who knew and loved Jack will commemorate 4 years of his departure. I couldn’t help but think that this year Anna turns 46, the same age her mom was when she died. Why am I doing all these calculations and making all these connections in my head? Maybe because I was looking for more and more things to mark my family as DIFFERENT from Anna’s, different enough to feel safe!

As a Presbyterian Christian by birth, I didn’t grow up to believe in signs, but I come from a Middle Eastern culture that believes in luck and optimism. It’s also a culture that believes in the evil eye and envy. In my family and at church we were raised to believe that our future, luck, or destiny is guaranteed in God’s plan for our lives, so we need to worry not. It’s easy to believe this and relax when you’re not a parent yet, a mother to be specific, but when you grow up and discover the harsh fact of life that bad things do happen to good people then you start to doubt your faith. I’ve never doubted that God is good, but I’ve never had to face a tragedy that shook me to the core and turned my world upside down. The war in Syria is the most recent tragedy I've experienced, with its ugly daily bloodshed and destruction, with horror stories of ISIS taking over beautiful parts of my beloved country, treating humans in the most savage of ways, left me bewildered and depressed. I mourn my country, a country I used to visit twice a year but haven’t seen in almost 5 years now. Still I count my blessings in spite of all the pain and tears. My uncles, aunts, and first cousins are all safe and healthy, at least physically. My friends are all still alive, my parents’ apartment, the only place I knew and called “home” is still there in a relatively safe area in Damascus, so I can still dream of one day going there and getting my photo albums, stacks of letters, journals and diaries. I dream about taking my kids there to visit their grandparents who will give them my childhood toys. When I get depressed upon hearing more bad news from inside Syria or news about refugees abroad, I try to re-count my blessings, which is easy sometimes because I don’t have a firsthand experience of what my friends and family members have been through and are still enduring.   

So when it comes to signs, I kind of wish I believed in them. They would’ve saved me so much trouble making big decisions in my life, like choosing my husband and moving to Egypt. And later it could’ve saved my husband and I the hard weeks of making difficult choices regarding our kids, life, work, and ministry. My husband believes that God gave us our brains, life experiences, and the Holy Spirit to guide our decision making process. We talked about it a lot as I shared with him my secret wish for a story like Giddeon’s in the Old Testament with his wool fleece (Judges 6 : 37), but we don’t do signs in our family, we don’t ask for them, we don’t look or wait for them. Instead, we think, we pray, we consult experts, we give ourselves a time frame, and we decide.

But yesterday, something happened, it made me re-visit this area of not believing in signs. I was reading the Rara Avis chapter of Rare Bird, specifically page 154 that has the poem Anna’s friend wrote about Jack. I read the poem (for the second time because I had read it previously on the blog) then Anna wrote about the time she posted this poem on her blog and started receiving stories from all over the globe. “They are amazing stories of birds catching people’s attention at precisely the moment they think of Jack.”. My son sat next to me as I read early in the morning, he woke up with the same severe headache he had the night before due to his high fever. I gave him his medicine and he decided not to go back to bed so we went to the living room and he started building something with his Legoes as I grabbed my book and read.

Finishing the poem and the page next to it I choked, I didn’t want to cry, besides, it’s too early in the morning to start crying, my son is right next to me, a little sick but alive. So I thought I’ll smile instead, thinking of the so many people who thought of Jack and saw birds. Then, all of a sudden, in the silence of the 6am Alexandrian morning I hear it, so clear and close, coming from our bedroom. Our rented apartment is on the 11th floor and even though it overlooks the golf field of the famous Sporting Club in Alexandria, it’s difficult for birds to make it this high above the tall trees. I’ve seen birds by our bedroom window often but not that often, and definitely not in the blazing heat of August. The window is covered with a fine metal net that doesn’t allow mosquitoes and other insects through.

When I heard the bird sing, I grabbed my camera and walked slowly to the bedroom to try and take a photo without scaring the bird away or waking up my husband. I knew if I took a good picture then this will prove to me that this sign is not a figment of my imgagination. The picture was bad and hardly showed any bird, then the bird flew and stood on the rusty laundry bar I never use, I took another picture, still with disbelief. Then I said to myself, if I can capture the bird’s face looking right at the lence in my hand then I’ll believe. Much like Thomas’ request upon hearing the story of Jesus’ resurrection. And here it is.

Dear Anna,

Your book took me on a roller coaster experience of reading such an amazing story about pain and hope. At times I wanted the book to end so the story would end with it and I can walk away and pretend none of it happened to you and it never found its way into my life. At other times I read and read and never wanted the book to end because I wanted to know more about Jack and to love him more, I wanted to know how you’re doing years after the accident.

I found the book to be scary, because it got me thinking that something might happen to my family, something so sudden and tragic that it will leave me broken beyond repair. I keep convincing myself that the real reason I’m reading your book is to help grieving people and as a pastor's wife to understand their struggles more. The psychology courses I took in collage fifteen years ago are very helpful, but a book such as yours written through the "perspecticles" (Glennon’s word) of a Christian mother is definitely a priceless reference. But you’re not a case study, and I’m not writing a term paper. It’s Jack we’re talking about, it’s Jack we’re missing, and it’s Jack’s life we’re celebrating. So my Egyptian bird came to remind me of that. Asfour Nader. “Asfour” (starts with the letter “ع” Ayn articulated from deep down in the throat) means “Bird” in Arabic. And “Nader” means “Rare”, noting that nouns in Arabic always come before adjectives.

The Rara Avis chapter was a beautiful one, so beautiful I didn’t cry till the very end, instead I had misty eyes, goosebumps, and a smile on my face. It made me love the bird metaphor even more. A bird not a fish, for instant, because fish swim but birds soar. This chapter was a milestone in the journey of reading the book, it gave me peace and comfort. One thing caught my attention is the fact that there’s no English word for a parent who lost a child, while in Arabic there is. It’s not a very pleasant word to hear, it sounds bitter, more like a curse or an insult. It’s mostly used in the feminine form for mothers and you can very rarely hear the masculine one for fathers, the root can be used for losing an offspring or a loved one.

This year Margret is two years OLDER than Jack. At the beginning of your new school year in the USA and ours starting next month, I wish and pray for Margret to have a safe, fun, and fruitful year, regardless of the painful math!

I worked as a part-time then free-lance translator for over 7 years during which I kept contemplating the idea of translating a book. But I kept shoving it to the back of my mind convinced that book translation is for people above the age of sixty, so I still have 24 years before I start. I don’t know how serious I was when I felt that Rare Bird might just be the first book I’ll translate, but what I do know is that it HAS to be translated into Arabic Anna, please make sure you have Arabic on the list of languages you’d like to see your book published in.

From the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, I'm sending you a huge THANK YOU. Thank you Anna for every minute, hour, and day you spent, thank you for every tear you shed writing this book till it saw the light. I think all Christian mothers should read it. It took one brave bereaved believer mom to write it and it took me all my courage to read it. Thank you for this journey you honored me to be part of, I’ve learned so much as your words addressed specific fears and doubts I have in my own faith in Jesus. Not only your book has nothing dishonoring to God (one among the many fears you confessed), but it also brings glory to God. The God we all tend to put in a box like you said you did, our little own boxes are as different as we are. But God surely is bigger, greater, and more active than we can ever conceive.  The most beautiful part of your book  is what comes next, your story is a real and an ongoing one, I don’t have to wonder what will happen to the characters beyond the book cover because you’ll keep us updated as we keep praying for you, Tim, and Margret.

Shukran Anna. 


  1. This is so beautiful and I'm sure made Anna feel so good! You are a wonderful person!

    1. Thank you BaconBear 4 for your sweet comment and encouraging words.

  2. I love this, Riham! You have a beautiful heart...
    I will be praying protection over your family and remain hopeful that one day you will be able to return to your parents' home to reclaim those precious memories and share them with your children. I am so glad that Anna shared your story. I (like so many thousands of us) was so touched and felt compelled to write about Jack as well. It is incredible how God can use such tragedy to turn our hearts toward Him. Blessings on you and your family as you continue to walk humbly with the Lord!

    1. Thank you Shannon for your sweet and encouraging words. Thank you for taking the time to read this post and to reply assuring me that you'll be praying for me and for the war to end in Syria. I'm sure that God is still at work, and we'll surely hear more and more stories about Him being glorified even amidst an ugly and bloody war.
      Is this a link to your blog? I'll surly start following your posts there

  3. Beautiful.
    I read RARE BIRD over the summer and could identify with Anna's grief greatly.
    Such an authentic, truthful voice.
    A voice of "HOPE."
    She is sharing your post today on her blog.
    Love from Minnesota.

    1. Love to you too My Inner Chick in Minnesota

  4. I'm just like you, found her blog and haven't left! I have his picture hanging in my office, I see him every day! Special boy!

  5. It is so incredible. Riham reaching out from across the globe makes me believe even more in the words YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

    1. We are NEVER alone, we just need more courage to share our thoughts and feelings with one another regardless of gender, religion, skin color.

  6. Thank you for spreading the "love". It's amazing how far life, love and kindness can go. The passing of Jack is the day before my birthday and as I get older each birthday seems to go by so much faster. Jack helps me to take a moment and realize that life is good. Life is ok. Life is going to go on and be ok. I think that has been my special sign from him. I feel like he is helping to guide me into each new year of my life.