Mary von Aue

It was during the final run of Conference of the Birds, the most recent NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ play, that rebel-held Aleppo lost their last functioning hospital. While birds glided across the stage in Manhattan, chirping an adaptation of Farid ud-Din Attar’s classic Sufi poem, Russia-led airstrikes destroyed five hospitals in one weekend, killing dozens and leaving at least 250,000 people without access to medical care. “A tyrant is never a king,” the Hoopoe on stage warned us. 

It might seem unfair to contextualize such a vibrant, surrealist piece with the realities that exist outside the theatre, but Syrian director Naila Al-Atrash selected this play with that intention, guiding the audience to a level of self-awareness. Since the war began in Syria, we’ve experienced plenty of awareness-raising to bring our attention to the tragic state of the country. With Conference of the Birds, Al-Atrash turns our attention inward, forcing us to ask how we have such knowledge, and yet chose to remain comfortable. 

Attar’s epic poem, which is just as much a mystical guidebook as it is an exemplary work in the Sufi canon, is a narrative best equipped to serve Al-Atrash’s purpose. Like the poem, Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere’s stage adaptation recounts a group of birds in search of the elusive and unattainable Simorgh. Lead by the hoopoe, the birds cross seven valleys, which represent the stations a Sufi might reach in the quest to understand the Divine. Of course, not everybody completes the journey, but each fowl’s blockade is self-imposed, from the bird that yearns for its cage to the owl that seeks treasure. Attar’s work sought to entertain and enlighten, while sprinkling in criticism of humanity’s spiritual laziness and our eagerness to be ruled, if only for the sake of comfort. 

Brook and Carriere’s original French adaption is no less scathing and retains much of the poetic language. Brook began touring his theatrical version in 1979 across Africa before it made its way to Paris. Al-Atrash, using an English translation of this adapted script, anchors mystic guidance to its modern context. As birds congregate to hear about a cruel king, images of protests rush behind them on screen. Our acting birds screech at the image of police pepper spraying a row of sitting demonstrators, adding to the sting.

Balancing 12th century mysticism with modern political commentary may not seem like a natural fit, but Attar’s work was ripe for the challenge. Conference of the Birds was exemplary of the evolution that took place in Sufi traditions, namely its pivot from ascetic communities to mystic teachings. Stripping the poem of its classical Islamic context would have made the heart of this story flatline, yet without Al-Atrash’s choice to anchor the parables to modern kings and tyrants, the play could have easily sat with audiences as a static pleasantry. Al-Atrash was able to make these Sufi parables relevant once again, not only by projecting images of the poetic king’s modern counterparts, but by assembling a young and flexible cast. 

Playing on the fluidity of both birds and dervishes, the cast often appeared as a single, multifarious entity. With bodies constantly in motion, they moved gracefully between each valley and parable while delighting in the funniest aspects of bird behavior. The Hoopoe, played by Mateo Correa, commanded the stage with all the hallmarks of an idyllic young community leader: earnestness, empathy and a David Bowie aesthetic. But as the audience might come to understand at the finale, each character finds its own ruler within. As the Heron, Meghan Piper Johnson was the pulse of the dance ensemble. Whether intentionally or not, she led the flock’s motions and elevated the choreography of the entire cast. Similarly, Soma Okoye, who played princesses in separate parables, was a central voice in the play’s haunting soundtrack and conducted the chorus in a way that retained Conference’s lyrical nature. Whether in bird form or in parable, the comic timing of Xiao Quan and Katie Shults kept a high level of engagement with the audience with each new flight. The synchronicity of all of these actors was an impressive work of harmony, balancing thoughts on both mysticism and despotism, conveying both hardships and humor. 

When the birds finally reach their Simorgh, the audience has learned alongside the flock. Each visually stunning parable was paired with its modern counterparts, reminding the room that flightiness isn’t just a bird thing. When the veils are finally removed to see the Simorgh, something much more harrowing is revealed: the seekers, both on stage and in the audience, with their own spiritual agency illuminated before them. It may have been Attar’s choice to originally make the Simorgh the birds’ own reflections, celebrating the ultimate goal of Oneness in God, but it was Al-Atrash that pulls the mirror to her audience, forcing us to confront our own choices along this path.

As Al-Atrash explains in her director’s note: “The war compels me to ask: Whom have we become – we, the inhabitants of this earth – and how did we become so estranged from one another?” Attar’s Conference of the Birds asked the same question. Divine connection is impossible without the seekers’ unity of the spirit, a point that Al-Atrash conveys explicitly with the singular body the birds often created onstage. (Attar went so far as to end his epic journey on a pun, given that Simorgh is also wordplay for si morgh, or “thirty birds” in Persian, the collective body that reached its goal.)

The political references made throughout this piece were not new lessons. Statues of dictators still standing and tanks rolling into parks are images on nightly rotation. This theatrical journey did not seek to understand the source of war, but the source of our complacency. The mirror that lingers on the audience in the end scene forces us to find our place within the flock. Did we stand against injustice or did we retreat to our comforts? When we watch the news and see east Aleppo under siege, are we the heron standing their ground or the owl that finds treasure in the wake of war? With a 12th century poet’s help, Al-Atrash offered us a cautionary tale to those who are ruled and a functioning guidebook to self discovery, if we dare to leave the comforts of a birdcage. 

Mary Von Aue is contributing editor for Warscapes and Managing Editor at the Daily Pnut. Twitter @von_owie