The Birds, the Old Lemon Tree, and the Great Soul Journey
This is a tale about a flock of birds that embarked on a soulful journey. A seasonal retelling of Farid al-Din Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds,” deeply inspired by Black oral tradition, moments in Grandmother’s garden, and two little boys who put their trust in Allah so that they might claim the sky.
In Grandmother’s garden, just outside the kitchen window where golden layer cakes cooled waiting for a sticky sweet glaze, a flock of birds gathered on the branches of her old, sweet lemon tree. They dined on juicy fruit and rested in the shade. Their chirps, floating along the springtime breeze, sang a song of longing for a loving, earthly king to lead them. That song traveled for miles and miles.. It traveled so far that it reached the ears of a special bird with black-tipped feathers and a prayer dancing down its beak.
Hoopoe soared through the clouds, in search of the song, and found her place on a branch full of spring’s lemon blossoms.
“I heard your song from far, far away. Your hearts’ desires will be answered today. Come with me! I’ll be your guide. On a great soul journey; an adventurous ride!”
The birds chirped in excitement and up they flew, one by one. But, under the tree, Mr. Duck stayed put, “this journey’s not for me, dear Hoopoe, I’m quite content where I am.”
Hoopoe swooped down, and perched herself on a rock. “Duck, my friend, don’t let that pond hold you down. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed; our only promise is now.”
Mr. Duck thought “Hoopoe just might be right.” He hopped up on the stone and shook the cool water off his feathers. Up went Mr. Duck soaring in the air, together with the Hoopoe and the flock of birds. He embarked on a journey he’d never forget.
The birds flew, and they flew, and they flew. But, the lovebird lagged behind. “This journey’s too hard. And, I’ve got this neck full of jewels. Gifts from my beloved; I’ll never let them loose. Now let me return to my spot in the old lemon tree. A sweet snack and a nap sounds much better to me.”
“And We have made the sky a well-protected canopy,
still they turn away from its signs.” (21:32)
Hoopoe swooped down till the lovebird hovered right by her side. “My friend, release those jewels. They’re holding you down. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed; our only promise is now.” The lovebird let the jewels fall down to the earth. Then went dancing through the clouds on the journey of his dreams.
Soon the skies turned a deep, dark gray; a cold storm creeped over the horizon. The little finch trembled in fear. “Oh, this journey’s not for me. I’m too small and too scared. I’ll never make it through.”
A husky gray owl snickered at the finch’s paralyzing fear.
Then, Hoopoe swooped down and replied, “Don’t laugh at fear, we’ve all had it sometime. Wish courage for your friend, as you wish for yourself, and all will be fine.” The owl nodded to the finch, with sincere apologies, and with the help of his wing lifted the finch into the arms of the Hoopoe.
“My friend, dear finch, you’re as brave as can be. Deep down in your heart you’re full of courage and power. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed; our only promise is now.” The finch soared into the sky ahead of his flock. And, he kept on going in spite of the wind, in spite of the storm, towards the journey his heart longed for.
“Do you not see that Allah sends down rain from the sky,
then the earth becomes green?
Surely Allah is Most Subtle, All-Aware.” — 22:63
The flock took a rest, after many days in flight, on a tree overlooking the glistening ocean. “Take a look over there, you see our goal, just beyond the mountain top. We’ve got to keep moving. We mustn’t stop!”
The quail gasped. “How much farther must we travel, dear Hoopoe, my friend? It’s become too much, I can’t make it to the end.”
Hoopoe replied, “Keep on going my friend; surrender your heart to the journey. You know how! Tomorrow’s not guaranteed; our only promise is now.” The quail closed his eyes, his renewed will carrying him along. He soared and soared through the sky.
The birds continued on, their destination faintly visible over the horizon. Then, swoosh! The hawk swooped over the flock. Determined to be first, he advanced to the front and deep into a heavy fog. He couldn’t see a thing. He was overcome with fear. “What have I done, there goes my pride. I am nothing on this journey without my friendly guide.”
As the hawk closed his eyes and surrendered to what seemed a most certain end, Hoopoe swooped out of the mist. “You’ve learned the most valuable lesson, you’ve let go of your pride for humility. Now, come along, the clouds have parted. Let’s complete our journey,” she said.
Then, the mist parted and the sacred mountain was revealed. They saw a glistening lake with pillows of white snow. The flock perched along the edge of the lake, gazing down at their brilliant feathers reflecting in the water. “You sang a song longing for a king, and I promised you much more. You polished your hearts and released many flaws to prepare for what’s in store.”
“And He is the One Who created the day and the night,
the sun and the moon—each traveling in an orbit.” (21:33)
Just then, the dazzling, golden sun lit up the entire lake. The birds’ reflections disappeared. “There’s no more you, no more me, there’s only the light within. Right there in your freshly polished hearts the most divine love has always been.”
The flock of birds soon returned to their home in grandmother’s old lemon tree. Their chirps now sang the song of content hearts, the sweet fruit of their labor–the great soul journey. And when spring’s baby birds hatched inside warm nests, they were told this story, as I’ve told you, to put their hearts at rest.
“Strive for ˹the cause of˺ Allah in the way He deserves,
for ˹it is˺ He ˹Who˺ has chosen you,
and laid upon you no hardship in the religion.” (22:78)
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Ashley J. May is an ethnographer of childhoods and the Founder of the Grassroots Morning Garden Project in so-called South Los Angeles, California—the ancestral, unceded territory of the Tongva people. Through a community grounded, Black feminist ethnographic praxis, she explores place, kinship, and culture, alongside histories of displacement and dispossession that form a distinct, collective memory and identity for Black children and their kin across the diaspora. Ashley archives her current multi-sensory experiments in community engaged ethnography through a three-volume research zine and oral history project titled Thirty Sunsets and a Moon. This work is held at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Black Feminist Archive and the Barnard College Special Collections Zine Library.