Mah Jahan is a merchant who collects beautiful birds on her travels and keeps them in cages or chains. On one of her trading expeditions, she seeks out advice for her favourite parrot, but it proves to have unexpected consequences that make her reassess her understanding of true love. This picture book is a retelling of a fable by Persian poet, philosopher and mystic, Rumi.
The cover of The Parrot and the Merchant is boldly elaborate and beautiful, but look closely and, in small print, you’ll notice these six words: “Based on a fable by Rumi.” This picture book is a retelling of a Rumi fable by author/illustrator Marjan Vafaian. Although Rumi wrote way back in the 13th century, his work has sold millions of copies in in recent years. In fact, he is considered to be the most popular poet in the US. I was intrigued to see how one of his fables would be brought to life in picture book format.
Vafaian chooses to give the story a contemporary edge by making the merchant a woman. Mah Jahan collects birds on her travels. She keeps them in chains or in elaborate cages so they can’t escape. On a trading expedition to India, at her favourite parrot’s request, she ventures into the jungle. A parrot drops from a tree, seemingly dead. When Mah Jahan relays this tragedy to her captive parrot, the bird uses the same strategy to gain her freedom.
The illustrations enhance the drama and emotion on every page. The opening spread shows Mah Jahan’s collection of birds. Each bird is an intricate jewel-coloured masterpiece and the floral backdrop is both delicate and elegant. But there is a darker undertone: Vafaian has created the ultimate gilded cage, beautiful to look at, but depriving the birds of their freedom. There is something a little disconcerting about the birds as well, with their black-rimmed eyes and sharp-pointed beaks. And it’s not just the birds. The illustrations throughout the picture book are exquisite but there is an unusual quality to them, a strangeness that made me uneasy on my first read-through.
This is particularly true of the portrayal of Mah Jahan. She is shown in a fabulous range of highly ornate voluminous dresses, but her challenging one-eyed gaze and firm set of mouth do not endear her to the reader. On the contrary, she is quite frightening. As are her servants, especially when they are shown with wide-open mouths screaming in anguish when Mah Jahan’s favourite parrot drops to the floor of its cage. But this illustration serves a purpose; it intensifies the emotion at a crucial point in the story. Mah Jahan thinks her beloved parrot is dead. And, what’s more, she thinks that she is to blame. “I have made my parrot die of sadness!” she cries.
Mah Jahan loves her captive parrot and desperately wants her to be happy. It is ironic that the one gift the bird truly needs is what Mah Jahan has taken away from her: freedom. The parrot has to stage her own death to be able to fly free. But Mah Jahan’s response to this turn of events is the biggest surprise – she accepts what has happened through love for the parrot. This is a fable after all, and we need a moral to learn from. And, for me, the moral is this: Love can mean putting the needs of something or someone else above your own; love sometimes means letting go.
The Parrot and the Merchant is a beautiful retelling of a Rumi fable in clear language that is accessible to even the youngest of readers. The story, like many of the best stories, is simple, but it conveys an important, timeless message about love and freedom. And Marjan Vafaian’s illustrations are magnificently different, unlike any artwork I have experienced before.
- Read David almond’s words about this book in the Guardian
- An article at the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava: The most influential children’s books are made for the sake of art
- Meeting the illustrator in Tehran
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