Conference of the Birds

Based on the book of the same title by Attar of Nishapur

 

CONTENTS

 

CAST

 

Primary Play

 

  • Hoopoe
  • Duck
  • Partridge
  • Peacock
  • Crow
  • Parrot
  • Hummingbird

 

Secondary Stories

Sacrifice of Isaac

  • God
  • Isaac
  • Abraham
  • Two Helpers

Prodigal Son

  • Father
  • First Son
  • Prodigal Son

 

Feather of God

  • Rumor #1
  • Rumor #2
  • Rumor #3

 

Wealthy Trader

  • First Worker / Monk
  • Second Worker / Monk
  • Third Worker / Monk
  • Wealthy Trader

 

SCENE 1: DUCK

 

All birds on stage, traveling. Duck starts lagging behind.

Duck:
Go on my friends, go. Leave me behind.
This journey’s too hard for a bird of my kind.

Hoopoe:
We’ll not leave you here, duck; we’ll not break our word.
Together we vowed to go all, bird by bird.

Duck:
I know that we vowed. I’m sorry to fall.
And though I’ll go back now, I will miss you all.
I didn’t perceive that this journey would be
So lengthy and tiresome and painful for me.
Fear not, though, I say - I give you my word:
I’ll go to my pond and return a new bird.

All Birds: Your pond?

Duck:
Have you not seen a pond on a sunny spring day?
Succession of ducklings paddling away
Rippling the water’s cool buttery face
Marching like soldiers in rhythm and space?
Father duck forging his family’s path
Giving his children an heavenly bath
And this, every day - so don’t you all see?
That rich lucky duck’s none other than me!

Hoopoe:
Wealthy and lucky as long as it’s spring
Strange to desire such a temporal thing.
Two seasons hence, after summer and fall
Your kingdom and subjects - you’ve lost them all.
The pond freezes up, the ducklings move on
Subjects and kingdom are presently gone.

Duck:
I’ll get them all back, though, by March of next year...

Hoopoe:
You’ve forgotten the fox; that much is clear
The catfish below, the hawk from above
Terrible foes that you now seem to love.
Earthly wealth thus can be easily snatched:
Kingdom, queen, subjects, although newly hatched.
Remember, dear duck, the reason you came,
The journey to God is no children’s game!

God tested his servant old Abraham,
Until it was time for the final exam:

God:
‘Tis time for your darlingest idol to die;
Take your dear son to Moriah up high,
Load up your donkey with lumber and knife
Lay Isaac there and take his young life.
Nearness to God bears a difficult price:
Your very last idol you must sacrifice.

Isaac:
“Three days we’ve traveled, my old father dear,
And all of this time you’ve shed many a tear.
Where are we, then, going, I beg you to know
And why are we walking so painfully slow?”

Hoopoe:
Abe didn’t answer but inwardly thought:

Abraham:
“Is God worth my giving all that I’ve got?”

Hoopoe:
Then in his mind spoke an opposite voice:

Abraham:
“Do we even have an alternative choice?
Turn our team backward and God disobey
Keep Isaac living and have it our way
Back to Ishmael and Sarah our wife
And with them continue a dark, Godless life?”

Isaac:
“Firewood kindling on our donkey is packed
We’ll sacrifice something: that is a fact.  
Normally, though, we’d bring with us a lamb
Then where are we going, father Abraham?”

Abraham:
“The kindling is ours; the lamb will be God’s.
He’ll see this through somehow, defying all odds.
At least I believe so, so please do not ask
And help me complete this mysterious task.”

Hoopoe:
Father, two helpers, and sacrifice-son,
Walked three days journey until they were done.

Abraham:
“Stay here with the donkey, while Isaac and I
Take lumber and knife to an altar nearby.”

Two Helpers:
“Yes sir,”

Hoopoe:
They mumbled, amazed and confused
That Abe had their help and their presence refused.

Abraham:
“Now, let me bind you. Why? do not ask.
Oh, what a dreadful impossible task!”

Hoopoe:
He stretched out his hand, then, to slay his dear one
And right at that moment he heard,

God:
“Abraham!
Do not lay your hand on young Isaac your son.
You’ve proven most faithful; your testing is done.
Your faith and your courage will now never die
Your boys and their children I will multiply.
I’ll raise here a city surrounded by wall
They’ll dwell in Moriah, their new capital.
As proof that my servant his doubts overcame
We’ll give this new city a long-lasting name:
From it, all religion and worship will stem,
The name of this city is ‘Jerusalem.’

Hoopoe:
This journey, dear duck, will not kill your pond,
But force you to challenge and break that old bond
That correlates joy with temporal things
And to its illusions most forcefully clings.
Gather your courage, no longer groan:
Continue the journey toward the unknown.

 

SCENE 2: PARTRIDGE

 

All birds on stage, traveling. Partridge starts lagging behind.

Partridge:
Go on my friends, go. Leave me behind.
This journey’s too hard for a bird of my kind.

Hoopoe:
We’ll not leave you, Partridge; we’ll not break our word.
Together we vowed to go all, bird by bird.

Partridge:
I know that we vowed. I’m sorry to fall.
And though I’ll go back now, I will miss you all.
I didn’t perceive that this journey would be
So lengthy and tiresome and painful for me.
Fear not, though, I say - I give you my word:
With diamonds and rubies I’ll be a new bird.

All Birds: Diamonds and rubies?

Partridge:
Behold the rare diamond set on a ring
Behold how it glitters, beautiful thing!
Before we embarked on this journey to God
I spent my days hunting a pea in a pod.
The pod was the mountain; the pea was its rocks
I’d hunt for rare stones like a sly hungry fox.
And when I’d uncover a diamond or two,
The pleasure, elation, and thrill that ensue
The truest emotions I’ve felt till today;
So why should I fly and continue this way?
You, he, and I will all presently go
But the kingdom of jewels is eternal, you know.
A diamond well-cut, was, is, and will be.
My love for the jewel, then, is sound - don’t you see?

Hoopoe:
There’s a law, my dear friend, a rule firm and true
Apparently hidden and unknown to you:
Whatever we put off from doing today
Gets harder and harder and then slips away.
I’ve yet to behold that unvarying bird,
Who, after quitting around valley third,
Regathered its strength and set out again
The brave task of mastering Self to attain.

Partridge:
Who spoke of quitting? You exaggerate
I still plan to travel, though not quite as straight.
Duck thought to quit to his family pool,
(Back to square one he’d have flown: what a fool!)
I, on the other hand, saw close by here
Just a mile backward, incredibly near,
A mountain of rocks, a quarry divine
Where I can practice this habit of mine.
I will not be long - I give you my word -
I’ll not deviate; you’ll not lose a bird.

Hoopoe:
Notice how one diamond doesn’t suffice;
This in itself is revealing advice.
Once one is obtained, your hunger returns
The fire of lust thus unquenchably burns.

Partridge:
The pleasure is fleeting - in this you are right -
Which is why on this quarry I’ll briefly alight.
Renew and return, refreshed safe and sound
Ready to cover more challenging ground.

Hoopoe:
There’s more to this challenge I fear you don’t see:
We bite on one apple and then yearn for three.
And when the sly serpent has finished its plot
We’re glutted with fruit: to fly we cannot.
A pause you initially planned to be quick
Extends without end: you’re injured and sick.
And when you recover, ultimately,
Still then you are haunted, as you shall see,
By self-deprecation, serpent’s old twin
Who reprimands you for the fool you have been.
Partridge, my friend, consider this please:
Your yearning for jewels seek not to appease.
This argument should your aim reinforce:
Jewelry glitters; a mountain is coarse.
What good can the part be that makes a bad whole?
Resist this temptation and strengthen your soul!

 

SCENE 3: PEACOCK

 

All characters on stage, traveling. Peacock starts lagging behind.

Peacock:
Go on my friends, go. Leave me behind.
This journey’s too hard for a bird of my kind.

Hoopoe:
We’ll not leave you, Peacock; we’ll not break our word.
Together we vowed to go all, bird by bird.

Peacock:
I know that we vowed. I’m sorry to fall.
And though I’ll go back now, I will miss you all.
I didn’t perceive that this journey would be
So lengthy and tiresome and painful for me.
Fear not, though, I say - I give you my word:
I’ll go to my garden, return a new bird.

All Birds: Your garden?

Peacock:
Where else did I get such an heavenly tail?
Observe the design of its smallest detail.
The Garden of Eden of Adam and Eve
Before they transgressed and were forced it to leave
Was home to me too, unique among birds
Whose beauty could not be described by weak words.
I, too, fell with them and lost my dear home
My beauty retained, though homeless I roam.
Eden’s personification am I
God’s signature in my tail’s every eye.

Seven long valleys this journey contains?
However much travel for me now remains
Birds with uniqueness and glamor like me
Can settle down here, around valley three.
No other bird has, as far as I know,
A remotely beautiful plumage to show.

Hoopoe:
“As far as I know” you say - that is our key
Consider, vain bird, you’re unable to see.
Your knowledge is finite and limited, so
There’re miraculous things you may not even know.
You brag and boast of your beautiful tail
That hinders your pace to as slow as a snail.
Another immutable truth of our quest:
There’s no slowing down and building a nest.
Your wish to remain here nestled midway
Cannot be granted, I’m sorry to say.
Who keeps not right onward is presently lost.
Worse off than before they began, they are tossed.

Peacock:
I may never reach God - if God exists -
(Perhaps one can reach him if one persists)
You ask me to hunt for an uncertainty?
Then give me some proof of this special deity.

Hoopoe:
‘Twas in China, one auspicious dark night,
That this God first appeared to our mortal sight -
A trace of his plumage dropped through the air,
Spreading rapturous rumors everywhere:

Rumor #1:
This token of truth, this feather divine
Must needs be an omen, a portent, a sign!
It seems to suggest God exists plain and true
With feathers and wings, just like me and you.
From now on this wonderful message I’ll teach:
The falcon-God ‘Ra’ I’ll worship and preach.

Rumor #2:
You take this God-feather too literally.
God can’t be a bird, conceptually.
This feather instructs me to worship in awe
A God with no image, nor body, nor flaw.
From now on this wonderful message I’ll teach:
The single ‘Jehovah’ I’ll worship and preach.

Rumor #3:
‘Tis true that God’s hidden. This feather - I’ve heard -
Is God’s loyal vessel, Garuda the bird.
From now on this wonderful message I’ll teach:
Incarnate ‘Lord Vishnu’ I’ll worship and preach.

Hoopoe:
Throughout the world many bird-flocks conceived
Its image and shape, and readily believed
Their private fantasies uniquely true!
(In China still this feather is on view)
It is a sign of God, and in each heart
There lies this feather’s counterpart.
This Godly spark has made each of us yearn
To God by homing instinct to return.
But since words fall short, what use then are mine
To formulate or to describe this sign?
Whoever wishes to explore the way,
Should promptly embark with no delay.

 

SCENE 4: CROW

 

All characters on stage, traveling. Crow starts lagging behind.

Crow:
Go on my friends, go. Leave me behind.
This journey’s too hard for a bird of my kind.

Hoopoe:
We’ll not leave you here, Crow; we’ll not break our word.
Together we vowed to go all, bird by bird.

Crow:
I know that we vowed. I’m sorry to fall.
And though I’ll go back now, I will miss you all.
I didn’t perceive that this journey would be
So lengthy and tiresome and painful for me.
Fear not, though, I say - I give you my word:
You’ll travel more lightly without a base bird.

All Birds: A base bird?

Crow:
Which food do you birds consume every day?
I’m different, more base: I feed on decay.
When Noah released the first bird from his ark
Before all the others were to disembark
My ancestor went (before the white dove)
To check if the time was decreed from above
The purified land to repopulate
Or whether ‘twas needed more seasons to wait.
He wanted to help his traveling band,
Help Noah determine if there was dry land.
But soon as he smelled the carrion blood
Of casualties floating about in the flood
His task he forsook; his master betrayed
He flew to and fro to find what decayed.
I tell this with shame, this base ancestry
Indelibly triumphs and lives on in me.

Hoopoe:
Betray you have not, though your ancestor may
So why should you use his weakness to say
The journey’s too hard for a bird of your kind?
Adopt his excuse to be left behind?

Crow:
‘Cause as we advance, to God progress near,
This tendency strengthens and strengthens, I fear.

Hoopoe:
There once was a father of two lovely sons,
A landowner known to most everyone.
His land was established while still in his prime
And with his dear children he spent all his time.

Father:
“One day, my dear sons, I’ll bequeath this to you
Till then, I do hope, that you’ll each pay your due
By helping me run and maintain our estate
Tend it and grow it and nourish it great.”

First Son:
“Of course we will, father. This much do we owe
For the love and care you upon us bestow.”

Hoopoe:
The second son was, though, of different mind.

Prodigal Son:
“Indeed, dearest father, you’ve been very kind.
I truly am grateful - don’t misunderstand -
Your love has been matchless, formative, grand.
I’ll not stay, however, support this estate
I’m drawn to depart and from here to migrate.
The broad and wide world is unknown to me,
I must satisfy my curiosity.
Before I do leave, though (I hope you don’t mind -
You’re always so generous, loving, and kind)
I thought my inheritance early to get
(I hope this idea won’t make you upset)
I am your true son; ‘tis my wealth by right
- don’t misunderstand me; I’m grateful downright -
I do, though, need funds to take this journey
My brother, I’m sure, will help you loyally.”

Hoopoe:
The man’s heart was broken - ‘tis needless to say -
He sobbed as he saw his son go on his way.

First Son:
“You should’ve disowned him, cast him away!”

Father:
“Easy for you with no children to say.”

First Son:
“Ungrateful, a monster, a thief - let him go!”

Father:
“‘This may all be true, but I do miss him so!”

Hoopoe:
The second son went, then, without looking back
With all of his wealth in his traveling pack.
But as we don’t value what’s given for free
He spent his inheritance quite easily.
Lost some of it gambling, some to plain theft,
Two years down his journey and nothing was left.
A knock on the good father’s door was then heard
Unknown, at first sight, thin, naked, with beard.

Father:
“Are you my dear son? Could this really be?”

Prodigal Son:
“I hope your dear son you are happy to see.”

Father:
“‘Happy’’s a word that my true state betrays:
I prayed every morning; I counted the days.
Oh, how I am joyed my dear son to behold!
Welcome back home, child, come in from the cold.”

First Son:
“Welcome? Dear father, you must have forgot
This child left ungrateful and came back with naught.

Prodigal Son:
“My father and brother, the prodigal son
is asking forgiveness from everyone.

Hoopoe:
The father stayed silent, but inwardly thought
That what his son owed him was equal to naught.
The time and wealth lost had something new gained
He felt his dear child quite thoroughly changed.

Father:
“My dear son has changed through his reckless journey
He beams with a new and distinct love, I see.
If we don’t go astray, we cannot repent
And without such remorse our pride will augment.
Repentance exceeds, then, a life without sin.
My son is now pure. He’s cleansed from within.”

Hoopoe:
Consider this, crow, regarding your trait
It both slows you down and opens a gate.
If only those traveled whose blood was most pure
The road would be empty: this I can assure.

 

SCENE 5: PARROT

 

All characters on stage, traveling. Parrot starts lagging behind.

Parrot:
Go on my friends, go. Leave me behind.
This journey’s too hard for a bird of my kind.

Hoopoe:  
We’ll not leave you, Parrot; we’ll not break our word.
Together we vowed to go all, bird by bird.

Parrot:
I know that we vowed. I’m sorry to fall.
And though I’ll go back now, I will miss you all.
I didn’t perceive that this journey would be
So lengthy and tiresome and painful for me.
Fear not, though, I say - I give you my word:
I’ll visit my perch and return a new bird.

All Birds: Your perch?

Parrot:
‘Tis true that we’re all birds of a feather,
And like family, we’ve traveled together.
But ‘tis also true that we each differ:
In size, clearly, some small, some much bigger;
In plumage, see, some colorful some plain;
In wisdom, some quite stupid, some with brain.
The parrot’s wisdom is of great renown
But ‘tis not my intellect that slows me down.
Beside my brains - my mental clarity -
God graced my race with rare longevity.
How long can each of you this travel last?
A year more? Two? Go on, then, travel fast!
Your lifespans are, what? Ten or twenty years?
In this, you see, we are no longer peers.
By all forecasts, a red macaw like me
Fifty to seventy will live to be!
That’s more than twice your age, twice all your time.
Back to my perch, then, I can spare to climb.
Let you all travel on diligently
And join you later, slower, leisurely.
I will, to God, arrive, I give my word
But as a fairer, wiser, slower bird.

Hoopoe:  
By all forecasts, you say, you hope to be
At least fifty, sixty, or seventy?
Does death these wise prognoses, too, respect?
These forecasts made and published by a vet?
If all your race longevity’s guaranteed
With your bold reasoning I do concede.
If not, a mighty gamble ‘tis you take
To put on rumor all your life at stake.
Your wisdom this should know, your brain should heed:
The life of no frail mortal’s guaranteed.
Macaw, like duck and crow, and all us folk
Can lose their lives whilst still a shapeless yolk!

Parrot:
This God we all seek, you say he is near.
Then why have we birds any reason to fear?
Leave us go back to familiar ground
Renew and return, refreshed safe and sound.

Hoopoe:
Indeed I have said that this God’s quite near
Though obstacles plenty our path interfere.
I mentioned to duck - you must not have heard -
That in all of my travels I’ve not seen the bird
Who paused this rare journey and backtracked midway
Without losing aim and going astray.
This God is quite near; 'tis we who are far
Forsake your perch, parrot: regrip our north star.

 

SCENE 6: HUMMINGBIRD

 

All characters on stage, traveling. Hummingbird starts lagging behind.

Hummingbird:
Go on my friends, go. Leave me behind.
This journey’s too hard for a bird of my kind.

Hoopoe:
We’ll not leave behind our dear Hummingbird
Together we vowed to go all, bird by bird.

Hummingbird:
I know that we vowed. I’m sorry to fall.
And though I’ll go back now, I will miss you all.
I didn’t perceive that this journey would be
So lengthy and tiresome and painful for me.
Fear not, though, I say - I give you my word:
I’ll finish my tasks and return a new bird.

All Birds: Your tasks?

Hummingbird:
I know you’ll refute this excuse of mine,
But consider my agile and frenzied bloodline:
We can’t walk or hop; to live we must fly,
If hummingbirds don’t feed on sugar they die.
In the span that it takes a mere second to lapse
A hummingbird hundreds of times its wings flaps!
Outside of this journey, my usual day
Brings millions of tasks that I cannot delay.
From flower to flower to flower I fly
(A challenging task - you cannot deny)
I start with a list. I check off each tree.
Completing my chores like a good busy-bee.
Allow me, awhile, then to be here dismissed,
(Fear not, this long journey is too on my list)
Fulfilling my tasks’ll bring freedom to me
And help me resume this long odyssey.

Hoopoe:
It’s true that this path has considerable length.
Our strength is our weakness; our weakness our strength.
Obligation, you say, is your bloodline’s chief trait?
Can we use this your journey to accelerate?
Obligation’s a good servant, poor master;
Conquer this trait and travel much faster.

Hummingbird:
I’ve tried many times - God knows that I’ve tried -
But each urgent duty seems so justified!
What works for you all isn’t working for me,
Perhaps I must seek my God differently?
If all my tasks I will promptly resign,
Deny all the traits of my frenzied bloodline,
Lock myself up in a monastery,
Study and study in its library,
Such a monastically strict new confine,
Will free me to fully pursue God divine.

Hoopoe:
A wealthy young man, successful in trade
Sat high on an empire that he himself made.
His workers were loyal, like subjects to king
Would ask his advice in everything.

First Worker:
“Should I make this decision?”

Second Worker:
“Follow this plan?”

Third Worker:
“I’d like to invest here: d’you think I can?

All Workers:
Your word is our Torah, our Gospel - Quran.”

Hoopoe:
His subjects all loved him, accepted his law
His rule and direction containing no flaw.
In mornings he’d judge between people’s disputes
Bring order and justice to many lawsuits.
In evenings he’d welcome all subjects newborn
And bless their sweet faces, their cradles adorn.

Wealthy Trader:
“Alas,”

Hoopoe:
said the trader, one bright sunny day.

Wealthy Trader:
“My time is not mine; my life slips away.
Ere death come one morning my dear soul take
These daily commitments I’ll promptly forsake.
Spend my time left in a life contrary
Within the confines of a monastery.”

Hoopoe:
He gave all he had - his wealth and estate -
Left it behind the monastery gate
Discarded it all, like a man would throw junk
And fully pursued the life of a monk.
A year or two passed, of life monastic,
Our trader was now an ecclesiastic.
He knew all the bible, worshipped God true
His monk reputation quite rapidly grew.
Worship impeccable, sermons profound,
T’was natural that he as chief abbot be crowned.
Fellow monks loved him, like subjects a king,
Would ask his advice in everything.

First Monk:
“Should we paint our church blue?”

Second Monk:
“Buy a new van?”

Third Monk:
“We need to expand here: d’you think we can?

All Monks:
Your word is our Torah, our Gospel - Quran.”

Wealthy Trader (as abbot):
“Alas,”

Hoopoe:
said the abbot, with anger and shame.

Wealthy Trader (as abbot):
“I’m no better here than I was ere I came.
One thing I perceive, though; one lesson I gain:
My time and my efforts were not spent in vain.
Through fruitless endeavor I’ve painfully seen
My false sense of duty came all from within.
Despite all my labor, I smuggled this trait
Unknowingly through the monastery gate.

Hoopoe:
Before you us leave, our dear Hummingbird
Consider if likewise your vision is blurred.
The journey to God is only for the sly
Regrip what is real, rejoin us; let’s fly.

 

SCENE 7: EPILOGUE

 

All characters on stage, traveling.

Hoopoe:
Birds are like pilgrims: we fly to and fro
This dangerous world, steep, strait and narrow.
Let’s travel together and make no delay,
Maintain our formation and fly all the way.
Greatness does not mean not stumbling at all;
Greatness means rising each time that we fall.
Like Christ hauling cross - the story so goes -
Who fell seven times and seven times rose;
Muhammad sprang up, centuries later
And climbed seven heavens to meet his creator;
Or Noah who seven days braved the first flood;
The week it took God to make man out of mud;
Buddha newborn taking seven firm paces;
It’s all the same story with different faces.

The faces are different, the feather the same
That fell down in China and published God’s name.