December 21, 2011
The Conference of the Birds is being referred to as the perfect gift book this season. It definitely fits that pocket, being the book is beautifully illustrated and tells a meaningful story about the human journey to make sense of our lives. It sheds light on the arduousness of the journey, the obstacles encountered and the reason why, as Winston Churchill proclaimed during World War II, one should “never, never, never, never give up.”
I don’t like the gift-book designation for The Conference of the Birds because it makes me think of relegating it to the coffee table for public display, and the story is one that should be kept more intimately near, at the bedside or in a personal drawer at the office. Its philosophies are worth revisiting to help us keep sight of life’s higher purpose, beyond the minutiae on our iPhones and Blackberries.
Peter Sís’ is a seven-time winner of The New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year award. He’s also a MacArthur Fellow (2003). The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s masterpiece with the same title about one’s search for divine truth. Attar lived in northeastern Persia between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, according to the book’s end pages.
Sís’ version opens with the poet Attar waking one Kafkaesque morning and realizing he’s a hoopoe bird. He gathers together all the birds of the world and rallies them to search for King Simorgh, hidden behind a veil of clouds, who has the answers to the world’s troubles. Some of the birds are reluctant to embark on the journey because they don’t want to leave their comfortable lives, and they’re not sure the king exists.
Nevertheless, off they go, filling the skies, soaring high and far. On their journey to find King Simorgh, who lives on the Mountain of Kaf, the birds must pass through seven valleys: quest, love, understanding, detachment, unity, amazement and death.
Some perish in these valleys; some lose hope; some get confused. In the Valley of Unity, “All who enter here are bound at the neck by one rope.” In the Valley of Detachment, “It is here that all curiosity and desire expire.” Most perplexing is the Valley of Amazement, “place of constant pain and gnawing bewilderment.”
Valleys are typical representations of challenges in a journey. Sís, however, keeps his storytelling unique and vibrant not alone with the colorful, abstract illustrations but also with the experiences of the feathered characters. Throughout, he reminds us the birds’ long flight is a pathway to wisdom by frequently incorporating into the artwork the symbol of a labyrinth, that circular path one walks to find the way to the center.
The most powerful and direct messages come toward the end with the explanation of why many birds don’t make the full journey. That is, why they give up. It’s a piercing reality check about human weakness, and one of those reasons I suggest the book be kept near. The power of fear and discouragement can be overwhelming, and that’s not only on spiritual journeys, but also the personal journeys one takes when following the heart or pursuing a dream.
Layers of new meaning reveal themselves with each new reading of the text. As I work on this post, I recognize for the first time, after two readings, the foreshadowing behind a statement the hoopoe makes in the beginning, pointing the birds toward a truth that will be revealed regarding the king on the Mountain of Kaf: “He is as close to us as we are far from him.” When you read the book, you’ll understand why.