Prose

How I Discovered the Conference of the Birds

This post was first published here, on the Ziauddin University Atlas Blog.

WHEN I was a boy and still believed in magic, I would frequent book fairs searching for the first poem I fell in love with. Some books, with their glossy covers, promised so much… but they never could live up to those glistening promises. Others were dingy paperbacks, coming apart at the seams and, while they were alright for a slow Sunday, they weren’t much good for much else. And so it was that I found myself at yet another book fair, picking my way through the endless shelves, careful to avoid the stacks of solemn textbooks, hoping to find it – whatever it was.

And there it was.

There was just one copy, standing upright on a small, empty table. And the cover was purple. Why the hell is it purple? I thought. I picked it up. It was a hardcover; a slim little volume printed in a timeless san-serif typeface. It seemed to be divided into short anecdotes, punctuated with gorgeous brush drawings. “A gift for distinguished men and a boon for the common”, it claimed. Cool. I hoped it wasn’t too expensive: I had just a bit of pocket money left. I took it to the counter. One hundred and thirty rupees, please. I fished around in my pockets. A red note – yes! That’s a hundred rupees! And… a bunch of tens, too! One, two, three. Perfect! I had the exact amount. Poor but happy, I returned home to see if this purple thing was worth the last of my lucre.

In the coming years, after I had read and re-read and folded and scribbled and underlined my copy of the Conference into tatters, I would look back on those one hundred and thirty rupees as the best one hundred and thirty rupees I had ever spent.

Ostensibly, the Conference of the Birds is about a epic quest by a group of birds to find their king. They journey across mountains and valleys and seas. They journey through the many gilded cities and rural backwaters of love. It’s about love. And the yearning in your tired, aching heart, late into the night, when all your desires melt away, save one.

Look, either the Conference of the Birds is the best book you’ll ever read, or it’s not. Anything else I say beyond this point will just ruin it for you. There’s only one way to find out and there always has been. Read the damn book.

22426608_900311633466349_255448669048629774_o.jpg

Standard
Prose

Djinn

The Lord sits with me out in front watching

a sweet darkness begin in the fields.

We try to decide whether I am lonely.

I tell about waking at four a.m. and thinking

of what the man did to the daughter of Louise.

And there being no moon when I went outside.

He says maybe I am getting old.

That being poor is taking too much out of me.

I say I am fine. He asks for the Brahms.

We watch the sea fade. The tape finishes again

and we sit on. Unable to find words.

Jack GilbertThe Lord Sits With Me Out In Front

I COULD see djinn. I’d see them, shadows falling off the houses in the old city. I’d see them, covens huddled under the banyans in the dark parks whispering strange songs in forgotten tongues. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d see them in the mosques and there I’d pause and watch as they prayed in the moonlit courtyards to the lonely gods of the night.

They burnt little fires that winter. There must have been hundreds of them; dirty pools of warm, smoky light in the back-allies and grimy roofs. And by each one — by the sleepy night watchmen and the boys who sold flowers and the silent, bundled up men who walked with determination to their empty homes — I saw them. I saw the djinn. And they saw me.

***

They began to point on the night of the winter solstice. Shadowy arms would be raised as I walked past, gesturing to the hills. And when I realised what they were doing, I turned and ran back to the house and turned the key in the lock.

I must have stared at that ceiling for hours, watching the lights from the street play across the peeling paint. It began to rain. A light drizzle that sounded like her pitter-pattering about the house and my heart twinged and I sighed and pulled on something warm and headed out.

They stood along the sides of the road, a thin file of smoke. I looked at them for a long while and they stared back, shadows drifting in and out of darkness. I shook my head, pulled the jacket tighter about me and, bent low against the north wind, made my way towards the silhouette on the horizon.

***

The path wound upwards. Gravel crunched under my feet and a sickly moon lit my way. The djinn were closer now, close enough to touch and I felt the damp from their shadows bridging the gap between us and hurried onwards. A cloud smothered the moon and I stopped and stood still and felt the gloom closing about me. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, they picked out a faint glow in the distance. I turned to the djinn to ask but they stared at me with their shadowy eyes and said not a word and the wind blew harder and — heart pounding, pulse racing — I began to run towards the light.

The path ended at the door of a small, alabaster mazaar. A solitary light bulb illuminated the wooden door and, desperate for a fellow man, I banged the brass knocker and hollered for someone to open up. Sure footsteps paced towards the door and I heard the sound of ancient locks being unfastened. The door creaked open with a sigh so familiar that I scarcely noticed the old man who stood at the threshold.

“Well, don’t just stand there! Come in, come in! We’ve been expecting you.”

Expecting me? I didn’t know what to make of him, but my heart slowed once he’d closed the stout door against the terrors of the night. Inside, a dim, carpeted corridor stretched onwards and we walked along it until we reached a sparse, white-washed room with a charpoy in the corner and a shelf lined with thick, leather-bound books.

“Sit down, sit down!” The old man gestured towards the charpoy. “Would you like some tea?”

I managed a nod and collapsed in the corner. He looked at me and smiled before walking out. I heard a stove being lit and the rattle of cups and water boiling and soon the little room was filled with the fortifying scent of milky tea. Outside, the wind blew harder and harder and knocked against the wooden shutters and I began to shiver and my forehead burned and I reached for the gray mantle that lay on the charpoy and wrapped myself in its warmth. It had a strange, familiar fragrance and I felt my shivering lessen as it touched my skin.

The old man entered bearing a cup and nodded approvingly. “Good, good. Here, drink this. It will help.”

I reached for the cup with trembling hands and, at the first sip, recoiled. The old man laughed.

“It will help with the shivering, I promise. Now drink! Go on.”

It was an odd brew and yet, like so much else, tainted with a strange familiarity. I felt the fever subside and the shivering cease.

“Thank you, baba.”

“Call me Khizr,” he smiled. “And don’t thank me yet, Shahreyar!”

“How—? How do you know my name?”

He looked at me kindly. “They told me, of course!”

“They?”

“Yes, they! I’m not a magician, young man, who else would have told me?”

He watched my confusion with amusement. Outside, it began to rain and the wind scratched at the door and lashed the downpour in wave upon wave against the shutters.

“Khizr, who are you? Why were you expecting me?”

He didn’t reply. Instead, he arose and shuffled towards the book case. A heavy tome was put into my hands.

“Open it,” he said. I did. Inside was faded ink and yellow pages and the smell of old books. Across the front was printed The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar and, lower down the page, a philosophical religious poem in prose.

“What is this?”

The old man looked worried. “Oh no, oh no! You can read, can’t you?”

“Of course I can read!”

“Good, good! Then please do so. And, if you don’t mind, please read aloud.”

“But — Where do I read from?”

“What a silly question to ask! Wherever you feel like!” He sat back and closed his eyes. Thunder rolled in the hills and the wind and the rain continued to batter the little mazaar. I flipped through the book, cleared my throat and began to read.

“‘A man humbly asked permission’ — Is this fine? Should I start from here?”

“Yes, yes! Don’t interrupt! Go on!”

“Alright. ‘A man humbly asked permission to say a prayer on the carpet of the Prophet, who refused, and said: ‘The earth and the sand are burning. Put your face on the burning sands and on the earth of the road, since all those who are wounded by love must have the imprint on their face, and the scar must be seen. Let the scar of the heart be seen, for by their scars are known the men who are in the way of love.'”

Khizr’s eyes snapped open.

“Wonderful, wonderful! ‘For by their scars are known the men who are in the way of love…’ And yet I sense you do not appreciate it? Why, Shahreyar? Why? I can see the scars of love on your heart. What good does this self-pity do you? She is gone! She is gone and soon… soon so shall you. There isn’t much time. There is much you must learn. Come.”

I stared at him, open mouthed.

“Come with me.”

He plucked the book from my hand and marched down the corridor and began unbolting the locks.

“Are you mad?” I yelled. “There are… things outside! They’ll come in! They’ll kill us!”

He looked at me steadily and in one swift gesture threw open the door. The full fury of the storm burst in upon us. Thunder boomed overhead and biblical torrents lashed our faces. Lightning lit the sky and the hills and there, just at the edge of the pool of light from the solitary bulb, stood a company of djinn.

“No!”

He gripped my arm and pulled me out towards the shadows. Rain soaked us to the bone and my feet sunk into the sludge and yet the old man pulled me onwards with a strength I could hardly resist.

“They are you, Shahreyar!” he shouted. “They are you! Nothing more, nothing less!” And as I touched the djinn, my fingers closed upon smoke and they dissipated up into the darkling heavens. The rains trickled to a stop and the winds quieted and we stood there, the two of us, breathing heavily as the clouds parted and the moon once more bathed the night with its radiance.

I do not remember much of what happened next. I recall bits and pieces — staggering in to the mazaar; collapsing on to the charpoy; drifting in and out of delirious dreams filled with the most hideous creatures hunting me through dark labyrinths until the morning azaan revived me and its melody lulled me to my first proper sleep since her death…

***

When I awoke, the sun blazed high in the sky and the breeze from the window held the scent of the sea. Khizr ambled in with a smile on his face and the ubiquitous cup of hot, milky tea in his hands.

“Oh, good! You’re awake! I was starting to worry.”

“What — ?” I gingerly shook my aching head. “What happened?”

“I suspect, my young friend,” he said. “That the answer to that, like so much else, lies in the book.”

I stood tentatively and walked to the bookshelf. The Conference of the Birds was easy to spot: it was the only one that was soaked; proof that the previous night wasn’t just a nightmare. I opened it and began to read:

“When the Simurgh, king of the birds, manifested himself outside the veil, radiant as the sun, he produced thousands of shadows on the earth. When he cast his glance on the shadows there appeared birds in great numbers. The different types of birds that are seen in the world are thus only the shadow of the Simurgh. Know then, O ignorant ones, that when you understand this you will understand exactly your relation to the Simurgh. Ponder over this mystery but do not reveal it.”

Ponder over this mystery but do not reveal it? Something broke within me and a torrent of old memories drowned my heart with a unfathomable sob.

“But Layla! What of Layla?”

Khizr said nothing, only motioned me to read on. I wiped the tears and drank the tea and did as he bade.

“A man came to a Sufi one day, weeping. The Sufi asked him why he wept. ‘O Shaikh, he said, ‘I have a friend whose beauty made my soul as verdant as branches in spring. Yesterday, he died, and I too shall die of sorrow.’ The Sufi said: ‘Why do you grieve? For a long time you have had his friendship. Go now and choose another friend, one who will not die.”

I looked at Khizr and he smiled eagerly at me. “Would you like to meet him now? He’s been waiting for you.”

The words caught in my throat. “Wh—? Who?”

Khizr turned at the door and shook his head, “Who? Your friend, of course! He’s been waiting a long, long time. Come.”

With a new lightness in my heart, I followed Khizr out the door into the bright sunlight. Behind me, the old book lay quietly on the charpoy, waiting.

IMG_3836.JPG

Standard