Fanny Howe reads from her latest essay collection, The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth, published in November by Graywolf Press.
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 carried a bag, a Qur’an, 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 for sale.
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 Qur’an 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 safely remain a child.
This utopia cannot include parents. An acceptable grown-up must be a failure, wanderer, street person, or artist. This vision is an open field with its horizons blurring into great shining cities and parapets that are not silver, not gold. Justice, fidelity, irony, and sincerity are the prevailing moods of this paradise that the kids can sometimes glimpse in nature, movies, poems, drugs, songs, and games.
An adolescent believes in great wonders and despises adult bitterness and is capable of heroic delinquency. The news from around the world only fuels his rage for justice.
An adolescent needs one selfless teacher or belief system to turn his disillusionment into art as the Uzbek movie The Man Who Loved the Birds shows.
This is the movie I am describing now.
The Uzbek filmmaker Ali Khamraev made it. 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 the children 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, with long heavy tail-wings unlike the little flocks that spin across horizons.
These birds are a forewarning of children molested and slaughtered. Only one of them survives through the intervention of a martial artist and poet who turns the boy’s fury into a dance.
From The Needle’s Eye: Passing Through Youth. Copyright © 2016 by Fanny Howe. Excerpted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.