When I was a child, my father would raise his long arm above my head, his fingertips meeting at a point like the top of a pyramid. He’d widen his fingers then place them back together, grinning, saying, oghab. “Eagle” in Farsi.
When I was thirteen, my extended family and I went on a cruise that traveled to England, Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland we had the chance to visit a falconry and see hawks, falcons and eagles. My cousins hid behind me as a white owl engulfed a small, naked, and previously frozen mouse. The handler, a tall man with long leather gloves, led us to a clearing. Everyone picked a bird of prey and got to hold them. I tied my curly hair up in a high ponytail and waited for my turn. The other family accompanying us picked the bald eagle, chuckling because the handler told them it was illegal for American citizens to hold them and they were from Connecticut.
My sister and I chose the golden eagle. The eagle rested calmly on my forearm held up by the handler. Her talons dug into the leather glove that reached up past my elbow. She looked like the golden eagle in the Hall of North American Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. The eagle is positioned on top of a nest usually found in cliffs or tall trees. The description below the glass case says this nest was near Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The eagle looks to the right, as if interrupted beyond her glass wall.
The golden eagle’s head jerked to the side and my arm trembled. Her beak was tiny, curved like a scythe. I wondered if she was born captive, or taken like the one in the museum. There was a chain around her leg. I couldn’t set either of them free.
A stray crow feather on the ground reminds me of my mother because she and her friends collect them for each other and use them in their artwork. On summer nights in Istanbul, I can sometimes hear the peacocks in the nearby park shrieking, and I recall the little peacock tattooed on my arm. In fact, he is one of the many birds on my arm.
The birds are in a valley lined with shrubs and rocks. A river flows through it, with a single, large tree at the top; branches extending beyond a frame. At the center, perched on a little rock, is the hoopoe. She waits to tell the other birds they are just about to meet their king, the mighty Simorgh.
In 1177, the Persian poet Attar of Nishapur, wrote the great Sufi poem, “The Conference of the Birds” or in some cases, “The Language of the Birds.”
Attar had taken the originally Arabic title from the Quran. Solomon, wise king of Israel and son of David, was said to have been bestowed the gift of speaking to birds by Allah, as well as control over elements, djinn, and demons:
And Solomon inherited David. He said, “O people, we have been taught the language of birds, and we have been given from all things. Indeed, this is evident bounty.” And gathered for Solomon were his soldiers of the jinn and men and birds, and they were [marching] in rows. (27:16, 17)
The poem begins with the birds of the world gathering together to seek a king. The wisest of them, the hoopoe, suggests they undertake a journey to meet the great Simorgh. She is a winged creature, the color of copper, and has seen the destruction of the world three times. She lives 1,700 years before dying in flames, much like a phoenix; rising out of her ashes. The Simorgh has all the answers. She is on Mount Qaf, hidden behind a veil of clouds.
“Your hearts are behind the veil, too,” the hoopoe says.
The birds are afraid and outspoken. The duck says he is happy in the water; the falcon says he already has a master and a set way of life; the parrot says he is given food every day and feels no desire to change his circumstances. The hoopoe asks them, “Do you like staying in the same place, following orders and being controlled? Do you like the anarchy of our time? Fights over food, water, and land? If you don’t, then follow me.”
The birds take off, filling the skies. They must cross seven valleys to get to the Simorgh.
The first is the Valley of Quest, where the birds cast aside their beliefs and obsessions. The seventh and final is the Valley of Death, where the self disappears into the universe, the birds become timeless, hearts are still and quiet.
Hundreds of birds set off on this journey, but by the end, only thirty remained. Mount Qaf appeared in the distance and the thirty birds flew and passed the veil. There they saw the Simorgh, and the Simorgh, was them.
In Farsi, Simorgh means thirty (si) birds (morgh).
There are versions of the phoenix or Simorgh in other mythologies. In Turkic mythology, the Konrul is described as a supernatural bird, large enough to carry an elephant. She has the head of a dog and claws of a lion and at times, a human face. She also prefers homes near water and her feathers are said to be the color of copper. In Azeri folklore, her name is Zumrud, “emerald,” and she grants passage between the netherworld and the world of the living.
In her essay, “BIRDS” accompanying drawings by Billy Sullivan, Margaret Atwood writes, “For as long as we human beings can remember, we’ve been looking up. Over our heads went the birds, free as we were not, singing as we tried to. We believed the birds knew things we didn’t.”
I don’t believe they know things we don’t. I believe they remind us of things we forgot. Attar thought birds were just like us, they were representations of us. Each bird stood for human emotions such as love, grief, longing and separation. In intense states, these emotions were ways of experiencing the divine.
I’d like to think the Simorgh is a composite of creatures: the power of falcons and eagles, the grace of a ringdove, the tails of a peacock, the strength of thirty birds. Maybe someone saw a golden eagle with her copper feathers and cosmic eyes, living alone on top of a cliff or mountain, and thought she was a mythical creature. Augurs in ancient Rome interpreted omens through the flights of birds and wing patterns; they were already assigning larger-than-life qualities and abilities to birds simply traveling from one place to another. As long as birds flew in the sky, everything was alright.
Ambroise Paré, born in France around 1510 and chief surgeon to Charles IX and Henri III, wrote an encyclopedia of curiosities, monstrous human births and beasts, called On Monsters and Marvels. In a section devoted to birds, he describes one found in the Maluku Islands. “They live high up in the air, adorned with diverse feathers: those which are on top of the head are similar to gold.” They were birds of paradise, “birds of God.”
Birds of paradise were once part of several detailed dioramas in the Whitney Hall of Oceanic Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. They were described as “strangely alive.” Now those dioramas are hidden behind the Butterfly Conservatory enclosure, like the abandoned wing of a castle.
The hall was the creation of Frank Chapman, the chairman of the Department of Ornithology and Leonard Sanford, a wealthy surgeon interested in ornithology. Chapman was hired in 1888 when he was twenty-six years old. He convinced Sanford to store his personal collection of “bird skins” at the museum who in turn convinced friends and other collectors like the Whitneys to fund expeditions to lesser surveyed parts of the world.
Chapman believed that the museum displays should show the animals in their own habitats: real places in the world instead of composites. The museum hired the artist Francis Lee Jacques to paint the colors and textures of the Pacific islands for the Whitney hall’s exhibit backgrounds. From the center of the hall, visitors were surrounded by a panorama with a horizon that echoed the Pacific landscape from coral atolls to volcanic peaks. In January 1953, Whitney’s son Cornelius declared at the hall’s dedication: “Here tonight we may all feel privileged to observe a dream come true. There is a corner of knowledge added to the mysteries of the universe in which we live. There is a thing of beauty, and so, of truth.”
In parts of the still-visible dioramas of the Hall of Oceanic Birds, the colorful birds are faded after sixty years on display but the scenes remain real: fruit doves, a barn owl, penguins in forest of tree daisies. There is a model of a New Zealand moa—an elaborate fake—a grazing flightless bird that is now extinct. It stands on a beach among the fjords of South Island, staring out at the visitors who pass by on their way to the butterflies.
Adam Nicolson knew the magic of oceanic birds, or “seabirds.” He called them ancient inhabitants and believed they inhabited a strange and ambivalent, “half-actual world.” They are ghosts moving from one place to another; the further from home we think they are, the closer they feel.
He saw puffins in Iceland where I saw them, at the edge of Heimaey: the secret lookout point. It was a colony, as Nicolson would say. The puffins sat nestled in the grass as the cliffs sloped down. Some swept over the rocks protruding from the water; others circled a cave that bordered the side of the island. I saw their eyes clearly from wherever I stood: pools of dark blue, saffron orange orbital rings.
Nicolson writes, “They are part of what we long for: beauty on the margins of understanding. They are not about transcendence but they are an invitation to inscendence, a word coined by Thomas Berry. Inscendence does not involve moving beyond the life we know, but climbing into it, looking for its kernel.”
The puffins were alive in this hiding place. I felt the same way, emerging when I felt it in my bones, not looking for any meaning but looking for the source.
Trying to remember.
I noticed magpies settling on the grass outside my home in Istanbul. At first all I saw were flashes of their black and white forms, the metallic blue and brilliant purple wing feathers. But they flew right beside our kitchen window where we leave bowls of cat food out for the strays. My mother says a big seagull flies in and waits for the strays to eat, then finishes the remaining food.
The magpies are new my mother says and gets up from the kitchen table with me to take a closer look. She remembers the name in Turkish first, saksağan, before I look it up and say, “magpie.” I tell her that apparently if you see many at once it’s a bad omen. My mother scoffs. People are bad omens.
The magpies exist in harmony with the crows and the seagulls. Even the cats. They all wait their turns for food. I think the magpies are looking at me. They reminded me of the huge ravens in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Their heads moved as I made my way to the temple. I paused and watched them, my sister beside me.
The wonder you feel when you see something for the first time, even though there’s a trace of familiarity.
I can always find the hoopoe among the other birds on my arm. She’s perched on the rock and all the other birds are looking at her, listening. The artist who tattooed the image used a single needle to draw her crown and the thin beak extending past her chest. The entire process took up to eleven hours. I watched as each color was forced into deeper layers of my skin and the rising blood was wiped away. As each bird took form, the colors deepened around them. It was as if I had known these birds all along. They have always been wrapped around my right arm.
A tether, so that I may travel further and further from home like the seabirds, remembering everything I have forgotten along the way.
Mina Hamedi is a writer and literary assistant to Lynn Nesbit at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. She has had essays featured in Arcturus, EuropeNow, Apogee Journal, BOMB Magazine, Off Assignment and Columbia Journal. She is currently working on an essay collection about her family and her family’s business, spanning four generations. Mina grew up in Istanbul, Turkey and lives in New York.