I didn’t have to wait long for Ziad, the plumber, to come to my house. It had been a year since the current Palestinian intifada broke out in September 2000, and unemployment was at record levels. When Ziad and his two assistants took a break, I offered them coffee and we chatted. Like many Palestinians nowadays, one of the men kept birds. “I have over 200,” he said. “I emptied one of the rooms of the house for them. They are great fun and very good business. So many people now want to buy birds. They’re beautiful creatures.”
“Do you have a parakeet?” I asked.
“Parakeets are expensive. You can’t get one for less than 2,000 shekels. And they are sensitive birds. They’re too much of a risk.”
Ziad, a boyish-looking man with a round, content face and a quivering voice not unlike a bird’s, boasted: “I had two.”
“What happened to them?” I asked.
“The settlement of Psagot is only a few meters away from the living room where I kept the parakeets. When the intifada began there was heavy firing from the settlement. The female parakeet with the beautiful plumes had a heart attack and her feet collapsed under her. The poor thing was crippled. She had to use her beak to move about. Her male companion was so annoyed he kept poking her. I suppose this was his way of encouraging her to stand on her feet again. We were worried he would kill her. So we separated them. But they missed each other and were constantly calling from across the room. It was so moving to see how they cared for one another. They were so noisy that we almost had to abandon the room for them. Anyway, the sick bird didn’t live much longer. One day I didn’t hear them calling. I went to check and found the female bird dead. Her companion now had no one to communicate with, and he fell silent. It was such a sad sight. I was tempted to pick up the dead parakeet, go to Psagot, knock on their huge gate and tell them, ‘See what you’ve done to my bird?'”
“And did you get a companion for the male?”
“No. I had to sell him. He didn’t fetch much. People only buy pairs. But I couldn’t afford to buy another bird.”
I was surprised to hear this. I had always assumed Ziad was well off. He had told me that he was born in Kuwait, where his father had worked for twenty-five years. I thought everyone who worked in Kuwait became rich. I had misread his sunny face as a reflection of an affluent and protected background. He was, he told me, happy to be back. “There is nothing like being in one’s own country. I never want to be in exile again.”
One year after this conversation, when I called Ziad again, he announced that this would probably be the last job he would do for me. He had decided to immigrate to the States.
“I always thought you would be the last man to leave,” I said. “Remember you once told me how happy you were to be here? What happened?”
“I don’t have enough work. For the past six months I’ve had to pay my workers out of my own savings.”
“Would you rather have stayed in Kuwait?”
“That wasn’t an option. You see, before the Gulf War my father worked as a foreman for a large road-construction company. He was doing well. Then when the war started the owner of the company, who was a Qatari, fled the country and my father lost his job and severance pay. As Palestinians, we were no longer welcome in Kuwait. We had to pack up and return with very little to show for my father’s twenty-five years of hard work. Soon after our return, my father suffered a stroke, which paralyzed him. He died one year later.”