in-Nassaba (1931)

There was a time when I used to venture near some mansab, because it’s worth knowing everything in you can in this world. How early he wakes, how far he goes, how many tools he drags along, how many trifles he endures, how much patience he learns, this fisherman of the birds! Dawn would have barely broken when, armed with poles and cloth and ropes wrapped with the greatest caution, and the cages large and small in a sack over his back, the trapper leaves his home to find himself upon the trap before the rising sun.

You have to cultivate the trap and keep it in order for a good while before you start, because you cannot trap wherever it pleases you. You need a good stretch of land, on a summit of some sort far removed from the wide road, with a bit of greenery around it – someplace that you know is favoured by the wind along which, in their time, the migrating birds are borne – incredibly, the birds always take the same route when they pass from one land to another.

When he reaches the place he needs to, the trapper dismantles the poles and ropes and lays out two nets, long and narrow, coloured like the soil, painted with water boiled with pomegranate skins.

He ties the two kalamenti, one outside and one inside, and the vents of the front and back, and firmly nails down the points that need to be strong when the nets start pulling. The outer edge of the nets is tied to the two ends of the rope, known as the cross. These in turn are tied to the rope that leads to the trapper’s hand, fashioned into a chain for a better grip. When the trapper needs to flip the net, all he has to do is raise his hand and pull with a strong jerk; the nets promptly lift up and flip together towards the centre, covering whatever is between them.

The trapper sits inconspicuously in the dura built from rubble walls, a few steps away from the trap. 

Before settling in the dura, he plans how to tempt birds to descend where he wants them to: spreading out the little cages with the birds that he brought along with him. If winter is nearing, the trap is set up for songbirds: vrieden, sponsuni, ġojjini; and the best female that is found is placed on the ġoga

This ġoga, a stick attached to a pivot, is tied to a line that reaches the trapper’s hand. Upon it, a bird is tied, visible to its counterparts passing above it to encourage them to come down. This tied bird is known as ‘tat-taħrik’ since every now and then it has to move/summon. When he senses that birds are near, the trapper pulls the line of the ġoga, lifting the bird to make it fly up and make itself visible. I don’t know how it’s done nowadays, but in the past the bird would be tied not by its leg but by its eyelids. See what the love of trapping leads you to do! Two feathers from its own wings are tied together, the two ends are passed through its eyes and placed through its nostrils; from there, the feathers are tied to the ġoga. When the trapper pulls, the poor bird is flown upwards and flutters for a bit until it falls back down. For better or worse, everything is ready for the trap. A great calm lies around the trap…God forbid anyone moves or makes a sound because the trapper would forgive nothing. 

The birds in the cages whistle and sing as time passes…Wait, something’s coming! Whistling in the air, yes, there’s a flock of birds in the distance. A pull on the summoning bird, the flock has turned towards the trap, approaching, descending…The trapper wastes no time; he pulls immediately and the net is snatched up, flipped to cover whatever is caught within.

He sprints towards the trap to catch whatever’s inside before it escapes. If songbirds have been caught, they are immediately put into the cage; if the catch consisted of psiepes, bekkafiki, skylarks, they are killed and thrown into the sack.

The trapper is beside himself with joy, but one who looks upon this without having known the love for trapping will feel a pang in one’s heart. One minute you see a flock of birds happily flying in the open air, the next you see them squashed into a cage for the rest of their lives, or a mess of feathers in a sack, a heap of lifeless meat. Such is the way of life.

This dream from fifty years ago came before my eyes the day before yesterday when, sitting in the garden, I saw a spider as big as a hazelnut climbing up and down the branches of a pomegranate tree, weaving its net for the night, to catch some bug which thoughtlessly passes through it in the dark. This spider-trapper thinks only of her belly, giving no thought to the harm it will bring upon the bug, caught in its prime of life in the grip of a merciless enemy.
My thoughts also went to the great power in the body of this tiny spider, who does all this work simply to eat; choosing the thread that she needs, some parts thick, others slender, weaving a net of greatest beauty and strength and then, with astounding patience and often hunger, waits for something to feed her because she is incapable of going out to look for her own food!

The thread to be woven is made during the work. In her belly, the spider stores a kind of tgħalliq or zaftur artab that, when she pulls on it with her hindlegs, forms a thread that with further pulling lengthens, thickens or thins as the spider feels is needed. 
The spider starts by moving high up, slightly sticking her tgħalliq against the edge of a leaf or branch, and lets go – or should we say hangs herself – towards the bottom. The thread forms and lengthens with the weight of the spider’s body and the work of her hindlegs until she reaches the point she wishes to. Here, she sticks the thread to another point and climbs up the first thread while forming another thread simultaneously. In this way, climbing up and down and crawling here and there, she weaves a sort of star shape as wide or narrow as she pleases. 

This wall of cobweb thinner than a hair is slack like hair as well. It’s a wonder that although this thread sticks to anything that touches it, it does not stick to the spider’s legs – we see her climbing up and down along it as if it slips beneath her; in fact, her legs secrete a fatty substance that allows them to glide along the thread without sticking to it. Hence the spider has everything she needs to set up a trap of the best quality. As soon as she completes the web, the spider is left with nothing to do except wait for someone to get caught in the net she has woven. She deftly places herself in the centre or hides in her corner and does not move from her spot until something calls her. Does she see, smell or hear the catch? None of this; she feels it. Asleep or awake, the spider keeps hold of the end of the web and as soon as something gets stuck in the web, she feels the thread vibrating, lunges out like lightning and comes upon whoever’s gotten stuck! If she finds a leaf, dust, a blade of grass or anything unsuitable, she brushes it out and returns to her corner, once again grabbing hold of the thread like a fisherman.

When a butterfly, bug, grasshopper or moth gets stuck, the first thing the spider does is make sure that this cannot escape. Whoever gets stuck is held by the thread, but this is not enough since the weight of the victim can tear the web. So the spider starts swiftly circling that which has stuck and with her hindlegs forms more thread that is spun round the bug until a thick layer has been woven – like a shroud in which the bug cannot move at all. No matter how big the bug, it becomes one mass and the spider needs only stick a thread to it and drag it unhurriedly towards its corner. There it starts to purify it. Not kill it; the spider does not chew, it only sucks, and if the bug dies its juices congeal and it stiffens, leaving nothing to suck.

Therefore, when the spider moves its catch to her corner, she gives it a sting to stun and paralyse it while keeping it alive. She suckles from it and leaves it for when hunger strikes again. A small bug lasts for one feed or even a day; a larger one is enough for two or three days or more. When the juice dries up, the spider disposes of it by dragging it to the edge of the web and dangling it on a thread until it breaks off like a grain of rock. After all this work, the spider needs only set up another trap by mending the net or if need be, weave another one.

When you consider that a tiny spider with a head no bigger than that of a pin knows all this, you are no more astonished at our trappers who fix their minds on catching a gardell. This bug the size of a hazelnut, without nets, without cages, without ġoga, month after month, in cold, wind, rain and scorching sun, is always trapping and catching her dinner. In her navel, he who created her gave her the power she needs. Blessed be God who told us: ‘Look at how the wild-plants of the countryside grow: they do not work nor do they choose’.

T.Ż. 1931

transcription by Julia Camilleri, 2017