Some months after our wedding, my wife and I were driving in the car listening to Assyrian music. A particularly jaunty tune engaged my attention and I asked: "What is all that about? Is this a song of joy or, as is often the case with the music where I am from, are there deep, profound meanings here that have absolutely nothing to do with the music?"
"This is about a bridge in Assyria," my wife responded abstractly. "There is a legend attached to it. Apparently they were building the bridge and it kept tumbling down. They consulted a local fortune teller who said that the first living thing that approached the builder on a given day would have to be sacrificed in order for the bridge to stand. On that particular day, the builder's daughter in law, Dalaleh, began to cross the bridge in order to bring her father in law lunch, her pet dog, running before her. Seeing the dog, the builder breathed a sigh of relief, but sadly, the dog began to sniff around the sides of the bridge and hung back, so Dalaleh, being informed of the requirements of the fortune teller consented to be sacrificed by being built into the bridge. Henceforth, this bridge has been known as Gishra Dalaleh -- Dalaleh's bridge."
Abruptly, I braked and pulled over.
"Where did you say this bridge was?" I asked.
"It's over the Khabur River, a tributary of the Euphrates," my wife answered.
In awe, I began to recite the following verse: "Αλίμονο στη μοίρα μας, κρίμα στο ριζικό μας!/Τρεις αδερφάδες ήμαστε κι οι τρεις κακογραμμένες./Η μια 'χτισε το Δούναβη κι η άλλη τον Αφράτη/κι εγώ η πιο στερνότερη της Άρτας το γιοφύρι."
"Is everything alright?" my wife asked, eyebrow raised.
"Alas, poor is my fate and my destiny accursed!/ Sisters three we were, and doomed we were all three./ One built over the Danube, one the Euphrates river/ And me, the youngest, I build the bridge at Arta," I translated.
"Are you feeling unwell? Do you want me to drive?" she enquired, visibly concerned.
I began to tell her about the famous demotic folksong about the Bridge at Arta, a song, albeit with a few variations, comprising exactly the same plot. Arched bridges can be found all over the lands of the former Ottoman Empire from Bosnia to Iraq, and considering the itinerant nature of the stonemason trade, with Epirote tradesmen in particular travelling as far as Persia to construct bridges, it is quite plausible that the same legends will be shared and local permutations affixed to them. What astounded me about the song of Dalaleh's bridge, however, was that it is directly referenced in the Epirote folksong. The Chief Mason's wife, in lamenting her fate, laments also the fact that she lost two sisters in exactly the same way, one in a bridge on the Danube, and the other on the Euphrates. Dalaleh's song, therefore, via legend and solidarity, is the sister of that of the Bridge of Arta, even though both bridges are separated by 2,500 kilometres.
There are a number of candidates for the Danube sister bridge. In variations of the same legend prevalent in Albania, all the way to Romania and presumably carried there by Vlachs during their peregrinations, the Chief Mason's wife, as she is being immured within the bridge, asks that she be permitted to expose one breast, so that she may continue to nourish her infants and the request is granted.
In the Euphrates' version of the myth, the local variants are fascinating. At first, when the builder sees Dalaleh crossing the bridge, with her dog now lagging behind, he faints. He has to be cajoled and forced to reveal the cause of his distress. Once she learns of her father in law's predicament, (in a twist to the tale, the prince of Bohtan who commissioned the bridge will chop of his right hand if he is successful so he will never build a better bridge, but will amputate both hands if he fails, whereas in the case of Arta, a grocer of Arta, Giannis Thiakogiannis, known by his nick name Gatofagos, the "Cat eater", is the purported instigator of the construction of the Bridge. According to tradition, a pirate ship from Algiers brought a cargo of oil to sell at the port of Salaora. Gatofagos purchased some of this oil, which the pirates had stolen from a merchant and discovered within the jars, not only oil but an abundance of gold coins with which he funded construction,) Dalaleh willingly agrees to sacrifice herself for the cause of safe infrastructure, whereas the wife of the Chief Mason at Arta is denied such a choice.
Instead, the Chief Mason relies on guile to entice his wife into the bridge, by claiming he has lost a ring, lamenting that there is no one who can enter to retrieve it, all the while knowing that his sweet natured wife will volunteer to look for it. As soon as she enters, "the mason slaps on mortar with his trowel; another slaps lime;/The Chief Mason heaves and drops a giant boulder." This heinous violation of trust is most likely the reason why the immured wife utters a terrible curse, transforming the now solid bridge into prototype of Galloping Gertie: "May the bridge shake, like the rifles do,/ May crossing pedestrians fall, like the tree leaves do."
It is important to note that unlike Dalaleh, who is named in her song and is thus granted personhood, we only know of the victim of the Arta Bridge in relation to her perfidious husband. Having no name, she is merely the wife of the Chief Mason and even now, she is denied revenge and completely disempowered. For even as she utters her curse, an appeal is made to her better nature: Yes, she has been hard done by, of this there is no doubt, but she has a brother who is currently sojourning in foreign lands. What if he should traverse the bridge and be cast into destruction by her fury? Faced with no other choice, the utterly defeated Spirit of the Bridge relents and is tamed, reversing her curse and restoring the patriarchal order which has been temporarily subverted: "May the bridge shake, like the wild mountains do/ May crossing pedestrians fall, like the wild birds do/ for I have a brother abroad who may cross this bridge."
No one mourns for the hapless, completely disenfranchised wife of Arta. She is no longer a person but a supernatural being that must be propitiated and neutralized. In the case of the Euphrates sister Dalaleh, however, she is mourned by a distraught husband. According to the Assyrian version of the epic, when Dalaleh's husband arrived in Zakho, the town where the bridge is situated and learned of his wife's fate, he was devastated. In his grief, he took a pick axe and started digging under the bridge. While engaged in this activity, he heard his buried wife Dalaleh's muffled voice commanding him to refrain from his pursuit, explaining that by his actions, however well meaning, he was physically hurting her. She further declared to him that it was her will to continue holding the bridge together with her arms outstretched and to stay there for all eternity. Dalaleh too has become a supernatural being, but one whose personhood, ability to choose and determine her own fate and her femininity remains intact, which is why her husband eventually ceased his lamentations and accepted both his, and Dalaleh's fate.
No one leaves offerings to the wife of the Chief Mason at the Bridge of Arta. Her fate is an ignominious one, consigned to a tenuous habitation within collections of Greek folk songs, even as the original music to her epic is no longer remembered. Even today however, the inhabitants of Zakho, primarily Assyrians and Kurds honour the memory of the redoubtable Dalaleh, by growing two lengthy plants in one of the gaps between the stones on each side of the bridge, calling them Dalaleh's hair braids. Our peoples today may be separated by geography history and politics. Yet they share song-lines that comprise human suffering and ingenuity in equal measure, disseminated far and wide by doughty masons of Epirus who travelled the length and breadth of their known world in search of work and the opportunity to ply their craft . And every time I cross the Bolte, the Westgate or any other engineering marvel that spans the horizon, I utter a prayer for the unnamed Epirote wife of the Chief Mason of Arta, and her awesome sister, the Assyrian Dalaleh, of Zakho.