Review of The Parrot and the Merchant: A Tale by Rumi

The Parrot and the Merchant: A Tale by Rumi
retold by Marjan Vafaeian; illus. by the author; 
trans. from the Persian by Azita Rassi
Primary    Tiny Owl    32 pp.
5/19    978-1-910328-03-3    $16.99

Mah Jahan, a wealthy Persian merchant, collects birds during her travels, keeping them “in cages or chains so that they couldn’t fly away and leave her.” When her favorite bird, a talking parrot, asks her to visit its former colony of wild parrots in India (“Tell them that I miss them, and that makes me sad. Ask them if they have any advice for me”), the merchant does, and is shocked when one of the wild birds drops dead. Back home, Mah Jahan reluctantly tells her parrot what happened; to her surprise, it also drops dead. When Mah Jahan removes the parrot from its cage, it suddenly takes flight; playing dead was just a ruse. “Thank you for the gift of freedom that you brought me from India!…It was a story sent by my friends to teach me how to escape.” First published in Tehran in 2013, this retelling of Rumi’s thirteenth-century fable changes the gender of the merchant from male to female. Illustrations employ unusual color combinations and loads of texture and detail. Humans and birds alike are depicted mostly in profile; the single eye on each character stares back at viewers in an unsettling way. Mah Jahan’s entourage of servants acts as a Greek chorus, observing from the sidelines with exaggerated body language and facial expressions. A thought-provoking, visually striking tale about the capacity and limits of love, and how loving something can mean letting it go.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Julie Hakim Azzam
Julie Hakim Azzam

Julie Hakim Azzam is the assistant director of the MFA program in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University and has a PhD in literary and cultural studies, with a specialization in contemporary postcolonial literature from Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

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