Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Conference of Birds



I don’t know when the thought first came to me. It was early on in the trip. Maybe it was when the whole bus was filled with raucous conversation and laughter, maybe at a particularly loud and boisterous dinner. We were usually a spectacle wherever we went, always the loudest group. But the thought popped into my mind: we are a “conference of birds.” Now “The Conference of Birds is a 12th century Sufi prose poem written by Farid Ud-Din Attar. Maybe the connection between a classic 12th century Sufi poem and our group does not seem the most obvious at first. It is not even written in Arabic but Persian instead. But let me explain. The poem begins with the birds of the world gathered together. They realize that the other creatures have kings but they have none. A Hoopoe (what kind of bird that is I have no idea) steps forward and offers to lead the birds to find the Simorgh, or king of the birds. Each bird has a weakness or fault that impedes him or her on the journey. The nightingale is enamored with roses, outward beauty and passing love. The duck is content with staying in the water and reluctant to go. The partridge has a love for precious stones, and the owl is corrupted by the love of gold. The Humay’s foible is ambition, and the sparrow’s is vanity and pride under a guise of humility. The Hoopoe’s role is to point these weaknesses out and guide them on the journey. On their journey the birds pass though many trials and tribulations, and seven “valleys:” quest, love, understanding, independence and detachment, unity, astonishment and bewilderment, depravation and nothingness. In the end only thirty birds make it. (Ok, so the number is not the same. Should be 14 or 15. ) They finally reach the Simorgh, but it was not what they had expected. When they look at the Simorgh they see themselves reflected back. They find “that they were the Simorgh and that the Simorgh was the thirty birds…and perceiving both at once, themselves and him, they realized that they and the Simorgh were one and the same.”

I’m not sure if I am doing the story justice. My knowledge of Sufism is limited and our “lost in translation” lecture on the topic was not much help. But like the birds, we were all on a search, a journey. We weren’t looking for a king, or God (well, maybe you were!) But we were looking for knowledge, insight, understanding, of both ourselves and the world around us. Like the birds in the poem I think we all passed through levels, or “valleys” in this journey. The valley of understanding was maybe the most relevant to our trip in Morocco. One of the lessons the birds learn in the valley of understanding is that knowledge is temporary but understanding endures. As Luis points out in his blog, we are by no means experts on Morocco, but hopefully we do understand more about Morocco and the Arab world. Travel is a wonderful opportunity to expand one’s understanding, and perhaps even search for enlightenment. In the end, like the birds, what we are searching for is reflected back at us, and we deepen our understanding of our own culture and ourselves as well. I will miss our “conference of birds.”

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