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Book Review: The Conference Of The Birds by Peter Sis

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There’s a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. Whether intentionally or not the line is crossed by the majority of writers who attempt to write about another’s culture as an insider. No matter how long you’ve lived somewhere or observed people you can’t help but be a visitor. Without the weight of generations of tradition laying heavy on your shoulders and the awareness of how you are part of something larger than yourself, you can only interpret what you see, not believe in it.

At best the results are merely insulting, but most of the time they are also misleading and give people horribly inaccurate ideas about the cultures in question. Taking somebody else’s mythology or beliefs as the basis for a horror story is probably the worst offence carried out by Western writers. What would you think if you were to read something in which the story of Jesus raising Lazurus from the dead was used — in an idea that’s been bandied about before — as the basis for a Zombie novel? (Although the more I think about it the more fun that idea sounds — literally born again Christians go on a rampage to convert everybody to their faith and the sacrament of communion really begins to make sense.)

Thankfully there are writers like Peter Sis who instead of slapping their own interpretation onto something offer recreations of the original stories which not only capture their artistry but keep their original intents intact. Proof of this is offered in his most recent publication, The Conference Of The Birds published by Penguin Canada on November 1 2011. The original poem was written by Farid ud-Din Attar, a twelfth century Sufi poet and mystic who divided his life between what is now modern day Iran and Northern India. As with many Sufi poets and mystics his works were parables whose hidden messages offered everything from spiritual advice to the relationship between man and his god.

One of the reasons why Sufis wrote in this manner was then, as today, they would often deviate from mainstream interpretations of Islam and running afoul of the clergy could result in accusations of heresy leading to exile or death. As Attar could have attested, having been exiled for heresy, sometimes they weren’t careful enough. The Conference Of The Birds, which was also known as A Parliament Of Birds, doesn’t appear controversial on the surface, but I’m not an Islamic scholar and have no idea if its underlying message would have been considered heretical by people of his time.

In Sis’s retelling he has Attar waking from a dream and realizing he is a hoopoe bird, an Afro-Eurasian member of the same family as Kingfishers, who has been entrusted with a message for the birds of the world. The message is that they are to undertake a great journey which would involve flying through seven valleys to the mountain of Kaf where their true king Simorgh lives. The names of the seven valleys they must fly through are: The Valley Of Quest, The Valley Of Love, The Valley Of Understanding, The Valley Of Detachment, The Valley Of Unity, The Valley Of Amazement and, finally, The Valley Of Death. Naturally some of the birds quail (sorry couldn’t resist) at the idea of making the journey and surrendering their comfortable existence for the unfamiliar. However, the Hoopoe is able to turn each of their arguments for staying put into their reason for making the trip. When the Peacock says he shouldn’t have to go because he’s special — “look at all my colours” — the hoopoe responds by telling him he should share his beauty with the whole world.

Needless to say, each stage on the journey brings a new lesson for those birds who stick with it. Some of them give up even before the first stage is complete while others don’t survive to complete the journey. In fact, of all the birds in the world who had set out on the journey in the first place, only thirty make it through to the very end to meet their true king. “And they saw Simorgh the king, and Simorgh the king was them”.

Unlike other translations or interpretations of ancient stories Sis has not only resisted attempting to interpret the parable for his readers, he manages to to tell it in such a way that the beauty and mystery of the original are retained. For this is not just a translation of the text, it is a visual feast for the eyes as well. You see Sis is a magnificent illustrator and this is as much a pictorial retelling as anything else. I suppose some would want to call it a picture book, and dismiss it as being for children only. However, not only would that be doing it a disservice, it ignores the quality of the illustrations and the depth of meaning in the book’s message. Each page not only furthers the story of the journey of the birds, it also makes for a work of art.

As with the text, the longer you contemplate the illustrations the more you discover their hidden meanings. A change of hue here, a change of perspective there, and what at first looked straightforward is revealed as having depths of meaning. If you were to flip through the pages as a casual reader you’d miss things like the explanation for the transformation of the poet to the Hoopoe bird. An illustration of a human eye within which you see the reflection of a small human being either walking towards us, or maybe even walking out of the side of the poet’s head. Taken with the opening lines of the story, “When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized he was a hoopoe bird”, we have to wonder what Sis is trying to tell us. Did the Sufi mystic really believe he had changed into a hoopoe or is Sis giving us a glimpse into the ways in which the inspiration for the original came to the poet?

Those who have any familiarity with Islamic art will know they don’t have a tradition allowing figurative representation. Instead, the majority was decorative with designs made up of beautifully executed geometric patterns. In The Conference Of The Birds Sis’ artwork pays homage to that style without either simply imitating or claiming it as his own. Instead he has incorporated it into his illustrations — clouds made out of the countless bodies of birds float across the page and the shape of a labyrinth shows up on page after page. Not only does the latter echo the motif of repeated geometric shapes common to Islamic art of the twelfth century, as a symbol long used to represent an inner journey or the path of a person’s life, it emphasizes the overall theme of self-discovery so important to the story.

Like the Sufi mystics of old, Peter Sis’s reinterpretation of Farid ud-Din Attar’s twelfth century epic poem The Conference Of The Birds works on many levels. Children and adults will delight in its glorious illustrations. The story of a poet turning into a bird and then leading all the birds of the world on a great adventure to find their king is sure to be one that will appeal to young people, while adults can ponder the messages of the story and perhaps even find ways of conveying them to younger readers. There are many different paths leading to self-awareness, and Sis and Attar prove they don’t have to be devoid of beauty, and you can enjoy yourself along the way.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.