After Seeing “Man Follows Birds” by Ali Khamraev
Once upon a time in Uzbekistan there was a boy named Faroukh who had the soul of a poet. His mother had died giving birth to him. His father, inconsolable, drank until he too died. Soon after, the boy Faroukh awoke to the hypocrisy and meanness of his neighbors, and set off into the wilderness. Before he left, a beautiful girl he knew begged him to marry her and take her with him, but he turned her down and left with his best friend Khalib to strike out into the vast mountains of the Caucasus. He wanted to be free.
They were carrying a bag, a Quran and a comb. Faroukh looked like a twelve year old boy, Khalib fifteen. It was the time of Saint Francis, when people tramped the Silk Road back and forth, carrying merchandise to sell. (There is a kind of Franciscan ethos of non-violence behind this Uzbek story, one that you also find in the Jain people of India.)
The boys were good boys. They wanted to be happy and to do no violence to humans or nature.
They didn’t want to meet danger or experience it. They were idealistic adolescents, like medieval Beatniks.
Faroukh read the Quran aloud to his sleeping friend by the fireside at night. The book was his map.
So this classic folktale (it could be told in any culture; and has been) sets out to show whether self-realization is possible for two teenage boys who have nothing and seek nothing.
In so many folktales, it’s like this. A struggle on the part of a youth to transcend and escape the ugly fate of adults. A belief in heavenly rewards, even an earthly utopia where justice reigns, so the child can remain a child.
This utopia cannot include parents or any other authority figures. Any acceptable grown-up must be a failure, wanderer, street person, artist. This vision includes an ashen field with its horizons blurring into great shining cities and parapets of gold. Justice, beauty and truth are the prevailing wonders of this paradise that the kids can sometimes glimpse in nature, movies, poems, drugs, songs and games.
The adolescent believes in great wonders and despises adult bitterness and hypocrisy and is capable of the craziest delinquency and rebellion as a result. The daily news fuels his rage for justice.
The adolescent only needs one teacher or belief system to turn his disillusionment into art as the Uzbek movie, Man Follows Birds, shows. This is the movie I am discussing now.
The Uzbek filmmaker Ali Khamraev made it. Ali Khamraev’s films are poems, with dark pauses between scenes operating like blinks of the eyes of God, like seconds of mercy given and withdrawn.
In the middle of his film we see the joy of first love under the almond trees where birds they call “the angels of life” hover. Birds in almost all religions are the angels of angels. They are divine messengers, and in Islamic literature they come as direct messages from Allah. This scene in the movie is part of a tradition dating way back, even to Noah’s Ark. The birds in this film are harbingers, heavy angels unlike the swooping flocks that reappear on the horizon.
Faroukh’s story takes place when the historical Tamerlan was a Mongol sheep-rustler and bandit in Uzbekistan in the 14th century. His wife was descended from Genghis Kahn and Tamerlan mobilized a huge army and slammed his way through Damascus, Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Turkey into Baghdad where he had 90,000 citizens beheaded, thousands more buried alive, women raped and children kidnapped, but he was a patron of the arts and architecture.
Khamraev made another film about this notorious warlord and butcher Tamerlan, whose name is magical, musical, the name of the older marathon Boston bomber. His followers and his legacy coincides with the time of Faroukh and the girl who was now traveling with them, a girl who may be all of twelve years old, around the age of the Virgin Mary. Her face and white clothing are that of a child who is still in formation inside and out. A plain garment was pulled from the water on her, snow white and rough.
Edgar Allen Poe wrote a poem as an adolescent boy, called Tamerlane, about a warrior who regrets his choices to be violent instead of staying home and loving his childhood sweetheart.
Poe, in this poem, remembers that storm of ambition closing in on him, as a 15 year old child.
I was, he said:
The infant monarch of the hour —
For, with the mountain dew by night,
My soul imbib’d unhallow’d feeling;
And I would feel its essence stealing
In dreams upon me — while the light
Flashing from clouds that hover’d o’er,
Would seem to my half closing eye
The pageantry of monarchy!
Bad dreams floated over Tamerlan the Boston man whose career in boxing, full of promise, ended abruptly when the awards could no longer go to immigrants like himself. His brother Dzokhar was repeatedly called an angel by people who knew and loved him. There were many. His face is dreamy and boyish and inscrutable. The man for whom he was named was a Chechnyan leader and hero, Dzokhar Dudeyev blown up by the Russians through a telephone.
Dzokhar and Tamerlan (perhaps schizophrenic) had in their possession that day a pressure-cooker bomb, seven IEDs, an M4 carbine, two handguns, and a BB gun. At least. A pipe bomb was hauled from the Charles River a few days after the marathon.
Amost as much as the detonation itself, the following days of sirens and helicopters and lights, the full force of American surveillance produced a collective trauma, culminating with a thermal image of a boat in dry dock. All day evening was descending over the city.
In those hours we learned that thermal imaging supplies night vision. Warm bodies stand out against cooler ones and are made visible in the dark. It’s very useful in military situations and in domestic surveillance. It’s infrared and spreads abnormal colors.
So we were treated to a spectral image of an ordinary teen sprawled inside the pale and archetypal ship shape, the white cover ripped aside like a collapsed sail.
It was an image that put the final touch on the explosive four days. No one could have thought up such a stunning and ethereal conclusion to the massive show of force we saw on television and outside the window.
That brief flash of film captured something reminiscent of a myth: a boy in a boat, his naked belly and ribs exposed to the night sky and its satellites. He was one of the boat people and migrants world wide.
It’s strange how postures at rest assume an archetypal, even religious glaze. It’s as if, despite all history to the contrary, the poetic—or the child—wins the after-life.
According to Julia Kristeva: “The Judeo-Christian paradise is an adolescent creation : the adolescent takes pleasure in the paradise syndrome, which conversely, can also become a source of suffering if absolute ideality turns into cruel persecution. Because he believes that the other, surpassing the parental other, not only exists but that he or she provides him with absolute satisfaction, the adolescent believes that the Great Other exists and is pleasure itself. The slightest disappointment of this ideality syndrome casts him into the ruins of paradise and heads him towards delinquent conduct.”
Is Paradise a creation? I want to ask her and how she knows. If it is an adolescent creation, it must be the last one before the arc of middle age has begun its descent, when the weak elders agree with the teenager and see all of existence as a series of parables.
Adolescents do take pleasure in the paradise syndrome, because thought is our most precious possession, and like a secret trove of carnelian, oranges and emerald, thought is colorful though invisible. No wonder the foolish adolescents believe that “the Great Other exists”. And so do the little hags and bugs seated on park benches in our village. Thought bounces on their shoulders like the ark of the covenant, traveling wherever they do and arriving too.
Kristeva feels that the adolescent is by nature a believer. Out of disappointment, disgust or rejection of his parents, as he grows, he sets up a secondary but new object to revere, and imagines an actual paradise attainable on earth. He is delusional, of course. Maybe he believes in God but not the Other.
Sometimes a person will believe (without being conscious of this) that she and God are alone together in the world and this will carry her through the loneliness of her life.
The adolescent may be a saint in the making. Metamorphosis is her condition. She knows all about sex and pollen, pupa and butterflies, and is happy to play with them.
Goethe noticed that the Greeks didn’t yearn for eternal truths, but felt at home on earth.
Isn’t this the brief joy of children too?
I look out the window. The river. The people practicing for marathons. Rowing, running.
Lights bobbing like coins and orbs of divine origin. The Charles River, which flows 80 miles through Massachusetts, and from Hopkinton to Boston Harbor, the route of the marathon.
Faroukh, in the movie, chooses the way of the birds. Those aeronautical dinosaurs that are obedient to every wave of air current. The almond tree with its white blossoms teach him that fruition is a sign of completion, failure to go on. The trees have completed their cycle, turn white, die.
How to postpone this failure and completion? Follow the birds, keep going, avert your face from violence, learn one of the arts.
People want what animals want.
Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts and outraged the conscience of teens, and whereas freedom from fear and want has been promised as a salve to those injured by human cruelty, there seems to be no way to escape.
The conscience of mankind is formed in adolescence as a revulsion towards grown-ups. Adolescents suffer in a way that is both personal and righteous, so they have a kind of blindness towards consequences, and every act of daring is suicidal, point blank.
The marathon bombing was less providential than accidental. Or is the word contingent? The liberation of the brothers from parental constraints, and the end of home life, with their backpacks full of bombs was a rush out of history, a rush inspired by their ancestors, the dispossessed, whose traumas and violence had glued themselves to each boy’s inner landscape.
The boys were driven forward by the cries of these voices in their bodies, born with them, until they died, one of them, the other left with the choice: remorse to the point of dying, or martyrdom. Meaning: the application of thought to a thoughtless act.
The poet Faroukh carries the Quran with him and reads that it should be enough to have a loaf of bread, wine and a friend to be happy in this world. He is sure this is true. We all are.
The trial is about to start. Today is December 19, 2014. In six weeks it will still not begin, when they have found enough people who believe in capital punishment.
This is what the migrant wrote inside the boat, part of it anyway, in pencil dripping with his own blood and sentences pocked with bullet holes. Pocked words were transcribed as holes with brackets.
“God has a plan for each person.
Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some
light on our actions I ask Allah to make me a
shahied to allow me to return to him and
be among all the righteous people in the highest levels
He who Allah guides no one can misguide
A [hole] bar!
Now I don’t like killing
innocent people it is forbidden in Islam
but due to said [hole] it is allowed.
All credit goes to [hole].”
Boston, April 23, 2015