Fes Forum 2014, Day Five: The Canticle of the Birds

By: Katherine Marshall

June 18, 2014

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Speakers: Faouzi Skali (moderator), Michael Barry, Katia Legeret, Salamatou Sow, Mustapha Cherif, Leili Anvar

On the forum’s fifth and final day, topic and tone took quite different directions. Attar’s twelfth century poetic masterpiece, chosen as the theme for the whole 2014 Fes Festival, was the subject, and a panel that was steeped in the poem and its context explored its significance in artistic, spiritual, and historical contexts. While politics was at the forefront Tuesday, it was spiritual understandings and challenges that dominated Wednesday’s presentations and dialogue.
The panel was united in its admiration for the poem, described variously as one of the world’s greatest literary masterpiece but also a milestone in artistic and religious history. It is one of the most important expressions anywhere of the spirituality that Sufism represents. But it also conveys a universal message, of love, beauty, struggle, and the search for truth. To understand and appreciate Christianity, Dante’s Divine Comedy is an essential guide; similarly, The Canticle of the Birds opens doors to understanding Islam. The poem is an antidote to the poisonous, violent images of conflict in the Middle East, an expression of tolerance, a song to an appreciation of difference. It is about living together, not as a danger to be managed or confronted, but an opportunity, a gift.

Michael Barry set Attar’s work in the extraordinary period of intellectual and artistic explosion of the twelfth and thirteenth century Muslim world. Each culture at its peak finds artistic expression in a specific form and the word, literature, flourished during that era (even as painting and visual arts dominated at other times). Delving into the poem he evoked its powerful imagery. The central metaphor in the canticle is a mirror, as the birds finally looked at the Simorgh and saw themselves reflected. The mirror is a powerful, universal symbol of transcendence. It is a metaphor for diversity: one sees oneself, but also everything, at the same time. It is a small part of reality but also its totality. As a most sacred image it reflects the soul. Mirrors are part of myth and spiritual reflection across the world: witness its power for the Aztecs, and Snow White’s wicked stepmother who asked her mirror who was the fairest, and received an honest answer. Mirrors are a symbol of the links between the visible and the invisible. You cannot see diversity, anymore than you can see infinity, yet both are present. Likewise birds are universal symbols of the connection between man and the divine, earth, heaven, and hell. They represent freedom to roam and soar, as well as mystery and beauty. They are the carriers of messages and the symbol of hope.

Katia Legeret, professor and artist, performed in the festival’s opening spectacle, the Conference of the Birds. She reflected on the remarkable experience of 80 artists from seven very different cultures working together to create a new work of art. As in the poem, the metaphor was of the artists’ experience was a journey, from valley to valley, with each representing a different culture. In the performance, it was the transitions from one segment to another that were most demanding. They called for communication but also changes. They were the most sensitive and most telling. Each transition had to depend on intense listening to the other, but also finding ways to shift tempo and tone. Katia then focused on some reflections of the poem in a larger context of Indian culture, honing in on gestures, stance, and the tiny expressions and silences that convey deep spiritual significance: openness to another, or closing in on the self, for example. Attar’s epic draws deeply on but also echoes much Indian mythology: the Garruda and many other recurring themes. Liberation, the ties between oppressed and oppressor, the center and the periphery, understandings of the soul as a mirror, interdependence and interconnection: these themes echo throughout the poem as they do in Indian spirituality. The Canticle of the Birds represents the collective intelligence that Faouzi Skali has emphasized.

Salamatou Sow, Nigerien scholar of Sufi culture, looked to ancient Peul wisdom and found many echoes in the canticle, especially in the sense that life is a journey. It is about each individual: the Peul, as many cultures, see each person as a star, unique and eternal yet connected to the whole. But traditional cultures also respect animals and other life forms and that itself conveys an important lesson about the meaning of life and of our responsibilities to the whole. The tiniest creature, the tiniest part of your soul, should not be neglected: recall that the mortal enemy of the elephant is invisible to her—the ant. A lesson that children learn in Peul culture is that the tiny shoot of a plant moves the earth so the plant can grow and we can eat.

Salamatou highlighted women’s unique roles. Another Peul tradition focuses on the body’s openings: men have nine, women eleven, so that they can feed their children. Men are guardians of cemeteries; women are responsible for welcoming all and nourishing them. Women are not afraid to love, nor to submit to love. Clarifying, she made clear that it is feminine qualities that need to be lifted up, not women per se. But it is time (Salamatou called it her cry), for women to demand that their roles as nurturers and protectors of life move to the center.

Mustapha Cherif, political leader and scholar, sees Attar’s work as a central guide to the teachings of Islam. It is about the demands of the journey, responsibilities, but also the possibilities. It is a tribute to the search for the middle path, the balanced way, a centered and sensible approach. This is a message of the Qur'an (Surat 57) that calls for wisdom. A middle way is the solder that joins parts of a work of iron. It is the way to overcome weakness and injustice. The spiritual messages of the Canticle of the Birds run deep, he insisted, because it is about coming closer to God.

The poem is, to Cherif’s mind, a testimony to the search for balance amidst contradictions and conflicting pressures. The poem is about humility but also love of others. The journey, he reminded us, takes us through exploration, love, knowledge, freedom, perplexity, and exhaustion. But with wisdom life’s challenges can be overcome. Solidarity is also part of the message: each person must go to God alone but one cannot reach God without others. Difference is a gift but also a test. Sharing is a joy but also a responsibility. Attar thus speaks to the reason we are here and thus to our rights and obligations.

Leili Anvar has lived with the canticle for five years as she translated and interpreted it. It is, she insisted, obviously one of the world’s great literary masterpieces. It is a sublime work that speaks to a power of love. Each reading reveals a new facet, a new insight. Each reader or listener finds their own truths as they read. It speaks to the mystical search for God and for meaning. It is cloaked in mystery, often hidden behind veils of parable and mysticism but it also tells straightforward stories. It is often hard to discern the object, the secret that is the essence. That is in the nature of an intimate link to a divine nature: one is both a spectator and an actor, a voyeur and a recipient. Love is, for her, the canticle’s central theme, with the symbol of lifting a veil to glimpse beauty and love. The veil is not torn aside, but lifted gently. The Simorgh is hidden behind 100,000 veils, and it is by lifting them, one by one, that one can see the invisible reflected in the self. It is a poem to open hearts. It offers the promise of changing day-to-day life through its practical spiritual lessons: the futility of anger, and the call to nurture the best in oneself among them.

A barrage of comments and questions highlighted the audience’s keen interest in the poem and the topic. The turn to the spiritual touched a chord for many listeners. Many highlighted personal stories about their quest for understanding and their own insights on the challenges they face. There was much talk of journeys, of the images of birds, of mirrors. Once again there was an appeal to explore ways to convey the spirit of the Fes Forum beyond the group who are present and to deepen the discussion and the understanding.

Final brief comments stressed the power and importance of words and language. Words have a power for harm (witness Saddam Hussain’s relative with a widely distributed comment that God should not have created Persians, Jews, and flies). But words, with the Canticle of the Birds a prime example, have the power to inspire and transform. There were reflections on the forum’s journey from its first venture in 2001. Katia Legeret observed that her own teaching has been transformed by the experience and she called the forum a real university, echoing the sense of the universal. Faouzi Skali looked both to the past, to achievements but above all to personal bonds that have been forged over the years, and vowed to pursue the journey and the common adventure. In a final note, he returned to Mandela’s wisdom in highlighting the importance of the idea of ubuntu: the notion that my dignity is tied intrinsically to the dignity of others.

*The classic translation of the title of Attar’s poem is The Conference of the Birds, but Leili Anvar and Michael Barry, in their translation into French, preferred The Canticle of the Birds as more fitting, reflecting the spiritual tone and echoing classic canticles like the Song of Songs.