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The Conference of Birds — Take 2

February 4, 2011

Two Crows Talking, the High Place in Petra

Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,

And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:

Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide

Return and back into your Sun subside[i]

I’ve longed been compelled by The Conference of Birds.  Well, that’s putting it mildly.  I’ve longed been compelled by birds.  I’m not sure why.  Probably because of my grandmother, but that’s another story.

In writing my first novel Shell Shaker, 2001, I used lines from The Conference of Birds, that served the plot in a variety of ways.   After all these years, I continue to re-read the Sufi poem for poetic language and its dynamic spirituality: that is — what is eternal, (the God, Allah, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, the essence of the universe) is not external or separate, rather it is all that is.  The totality of existence.  We humans and our world are made of that existence.  In the Sufi poem when the thirty birds reach their destination, they see only each other and their reflection in the lake.  Hence, they are the ones they have been seeking.  All that is — is with them.

Of course, there are many interpretations of The Conference of Birds. I don’t know them all.

“The Parrot longs for immortality”

I bring it up because as I’ve been watching the Egyptian people protest against the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak, I realize that the poem still affects me. So far, all of the colonizing western nations, including the USA, have been wringing their hands saying, “Who will take President Hosni Mubarak’s place should he leave?”  Actually, I think they mean, “How can we replace Mubarak with our man when we don’t know who our man is on such short notice?”

At first, I found myself asking similar stupid questions. “Who will lead Egypt?” Then light dawns, “Hey, this is not for me to say.  I’m a foreigner living in a neighboring country.  Egypt is not my homeland, not even close.  The Egyptian people will solve this without outsiders.” So I again re-read the final passages of The Conference of Birds.  The 30 birds find, at the end of their journey, only themselves, their reflection.  Perhaps it’s the same with the Egyptians.  And by extension, all of us. We may find that it’s our own highest selves we seek.  I believe, (hope) that the Egyptian people will visualize a new leader for the new era, the twenty-first century.  All that we are, all of existence, all atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, the vast expanse of space, McDonalds’ french fries, everything was created at once and integrated in us — all through the art of creation.  Let’s make the most of it.  Together.

Err-r-r, snap! See why I return again and again to The Conference of Birds. We’re separated; we’re connected; we’re separated; we’re connected; which is it?

“Where is the hand to pour dust on my head, Or lift me from the dust where I lie dead? Where is the foot that seeks the longed-for-place?”

There are paradoxes to be considered.  Questions to be turned over and over — like our relationship(s) with everything, including the divine.  Should we stick to our own bordered enclaves, or should we connect and link our stories?  I’m not entirely sure, but here goes:

According to a news story in the Jordan Times, July 2010, Labour Minister Ibrahim Omoush said, “that over 100,000 out of the 338,000 Egyptian workers in the Kingdom do not have valid work or residency permits.”  (It costs 400 JD to get a work permit in Jordan. The residency permit costs 69 JD.)  I’m not complaining about the fees, I’m in the guest worker category as a Fulbright scholar, and immigration and visa rules are in place for valid reasons.  Goodness knows in America we’re ate up with “illegal-alien-immigration” issues, even as Mexicans still do the bulk of the farm work, restaurant and domestic servant work in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.  You know, mowing lawns, housekeeping, nannying, picking lettuce and tomatoes, all jobs most Americans refuse to do.  According to the same Jordan Times’ article, Egyptian laborers constitute around 70 per cent of all guest workers in Jordan.  In that way, Mexicans in the USA are not unlike Egyptians in Jordan.  Both countries depend on cheap foreign labor.  So we’re linked by our economic self-interests.

In this week’s demonstrations in Tahrir Square it’s clear why Egyptians turn to other countries for work.  There are not enough jobs at home.  As the most populated Arab country, two-thirds are under age 30, and ninety percent of that age group is unemployed[ii]. But as University of Illinois professor Asef Bayat writes[iii], “At stake is not just jobs and descent material welfare; at stake is also the people’s dignity and pursuit of human and democratic rights.  As we have seen so powerfully in Tunisia, the translation of collective dissent into collective action and sustained campaign for change has its own intriguing and often unpredictable dynamics.”

“Being just is better than a life of worship. Justice exercised in secret is even better than liberality; but justice professed openly may lead to hypocrisy” Aaron's Tomb, Petra.

Yet another connection.

In my area of Amman, there are many young Egyptian workers.  They’ve come here to work.  Most send money home to their families.  Sound familiar USA? Today, I paid the monthly utilities bills for my flat.  I gave the money to Mohammed (not his real name), the under-thirty-year-old Egyptian who takes care of the building where I live.  He speaks very little English, I speak very little Arabic.  This morning when he comes to collect the bills, he looks tired and sad.  I have the tv on Al Jazeera, watching the events unfold in Tahrir Square. We exchange polite greetings.  I ask about his health.

“Keif el saha?”

“Tamam.”  Fine.

For a brief second we lock eyes.  There’s a glint of a tear.  He looks away.

“I am sorry,” I say.

“I go now.” As he’s about to head to the next apartment he turns, “Mubarak go.”  He says it firmly so there is no misunderstanding as to what he means, or how he feels.

“Mubarak khallas,” I say.  Mubarak finished.

Later, as I watch the continuing media coverage around Egypt, I know that I don’t really know whether Mubarak is finished or not.  Since I write mainly for my friends, maybe this story is for you to connect with.

“The journey of the birds takes them through the seven valleys of the quest, love, understanding, independence and detachment, unity, astonishment, and finally poverty and nothingness.”

And as we are told in countless stories, nothingness is everything that is.

[Just FYI.  My comments here are my own.  I am not an official of the Department of State, and this is not an official Department of State website.  The views and information presented here are my own, and do not in any way, represent the USA’s William J. Fulbright Program, or the Department of State.]

[i] The Conference of Birds, Farīd ud-Dīn, 1177.

[ii] These figures are disputed by the Egyptian government.

[iii] Professor Bayat teaches in the departmentof Sociology and Middle East Studies at the University of Illinois.  His article appears in Truthout. “A New Arab Street in Post-Islamic Times” Wednesday, January 26, 2011.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Patrice Hollrah permalink
    February 5, 2011 1:20 am

    Thanks for posting your thoughts about the news in Egypt. I especially like your comparisons to the “Conference of Birds.”

  2. LeAnne Howe permalink
    February 5, 2011 6:21 am

    Thanks Patrice. I’m going to try and tell the story as clearly as I can — for an oldie! (:

  3. Gwen Westerman permalink
    February 6, 2011 5:10 pm

    I’m sitting here watching a host of cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers as they swoop in on the birdfeeders next to the porch. The snow is deep and reflects a filtered sunlight from an overcast sky. But what gives me pause are the bright flashes of red and the sound of fluttering wings outside my window. There’s much to be seen and heard if we will only stop to look and listen. Thanks, LeAnne, for reminding us of that.

  4. LeAnne Howe permalink
    February 7, 2011 1:33 am

    tks Gwen and I miss seeing woodpeckers. One of my friends here in Amman raises canaries. So much to say, too. The Flamboyant One, is here and at his post. So, I suppose all is right with the world!

    achukma, and I miss you.

  5. Moddafar M. Samhan permalink
    February 10, 2011 4:46 pm

    Brilliant As Always ..

    ” The 30 birds find, at the end of their journey,
    Only themselves, their reflection. ”

    It’s My Favorite

    And LeAnne, Anytime U Wanna C My Canaries
    Just Give Me A Call 🙂

  6. LeAnne Howe permalink
    February 10, 2011 5:23 pm

    tks Moddafar. I will do it, sometime.

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