“Two Stories” by Luay Hamza Abbas

by zunguzungu

These two stories by Luay Hamza Abbas required almost a full class-period of sound and fury from me before my students started to give me some nods. They aren’t easy stories, all the more criminal in two pieces of writing so short (1000 words in total). I told them that “The Logic of Birds” is a famous old Persian poem, and I gave them these extracts from wikipedia:

Besides being one of the most celebrated examples of Persian poetry, this book relies on a clever word play between the words Simorgh — a mysterious bird in Iranian mythology which is a symbol often found in sufi literature, and similar to the phoenix bird — and “si morgh” — meaning “thirty birds” in Persian … The story recounts the longing of a group of birds who desire to know the great Simorgh, and who, under the guidance of a leader bird, start their journey toward the land of Simorgh. One by one, they drop out of the journey, each offering an excuse and unable to endure the journey. Each bird has a special significance, and a corresponding didactic fault. The guiding bird is the hoopoe, while the nightingale symbolizes the lover. The parrot is seeking the fountain of immortality, not God and the peacock symbolizes the “fallen soul” who is in alliance with Satan.

The birds must cross seven valleys in order to find the Simorgh: Talab (Yearning), Eshq (Love), Marifat (Gnosis), Istighnah (Detachment), Tawheed (Unity of God), Hayrat (Bewilderment) and, finally, Fuqur and Fana (Selflessness and Oblivion in God). These represent the stations that a Sufi or any individual must pass through to realize the true nature of God.

Within the larger context of the story of the journey of the birds, Attar masterfully tells the reader many didactic short, sweet stories in captivating poetic style. Eventually only thirty birds remain as they finally arrive in the land of Simorgh — all they see there are each other and the reflection of the thirty birds in a lake — not the mythical Simorgh. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, rather is the totality of existence.

I talked about didacticism and the classicism it implies in this case, the sense of community implied by a common inheritance of a Persian text from the medieval era, and brought us back to the Mullah Nasruddin stories we had begun the class with. What does it mean to tell these stories? Where is the meaning to be found? The difficulty? What does it mean for a story to be “hard”? They had all begun by agreeing that it was, but how could a story that defied comprehension be so comprehensively described with such unanimity?

We talked about these lines, the first three of the story:

In the mountains of China there once was a man preoccupied with breaking stones. His eyes poured tears onto the ground, and his tears turned into stone. Every time I open the book The Logic of Birds, Farid Ud-Din Attar’s story leads me, somehow, to writing.

Stones turn into tears, tears turn into stone. A student pointed out that his work was never done, but what is the meaning of that? What meaning do we bring to an endless work? What does it mean that reading turns to writing turns to reading? Is this continuity a prison? Or a shelter? We worked over the poetry of those lines, breaking them down and then building them up.

With the destruction of the stone and the invention of the word the two images intertwine and the scene is conflated. A tear is shed (from the man’s eye or the writer’s?). It falls on the ground only to transform, through continuous magic, into the matter that builds the world from stone and words.

The world is stone and words. I didn’t use the word dialectic, because “stone and words” was better and these words were the thing itself. And then the story turns to the 1980’s, to the war between Iraq and Iran, and suddenly the story is by an Iraqi author meditating on a Persian poet as a prelude to telling “another story,” the one that a generation of Iraqi writers faced:

No mountains existed before them to demarcate their steep descent to the bottom of the ordeal. Nor did mountains exist to make them face the illusion in order to accomplish worlds that did not aspire to replicate the world as it is, or to demolish it for the sake of erecting an alternative world. They were driven by their ambition to invent discrete worlds amidst the smells of blood and ashes. At the time, the homeland was not a homeland; it was a barrack encased in war songs in the oblivion of the desert…

But the first story is itself only a prelude, only the hermeneutic through which the second story acquires its meaning. And how it does! It is about a reader now, who reads a book and wants to recreate it, a kind of past of restaurants and crowds and commotions. He wants to retreat  from the world. He wants to eat the same Fava beans as the Cairene flaneur of the story. But is it the beans he wants, or the restaurant? The meal or the people? Or something else? He walks down to the shop on the basement floor of his building, buys a can of beans and heats them up, but only after strolling past empty corridors and open doors, too empty, too open. And then he gets a call, from far away, asking him a question too intimate, too close to answer.