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Stories of the Simorgh

by Sally Pomme Clayton, author of The Phoenix of Persia

Buy The Phoenix of Persia

‘Sitting in the nest was a bird, with curving beak and trailing tail. Her feathers flashed, scarlet, ruby, purple, gold. She was the size of thirty birds and shone like a hundred suns. The Simorgh!’
The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Pomme Clayton and Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif

I was going to the Edinburgh Book Festival 2019, and was looking forward to meeting Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif, the illustrator of our book The Phoenix of Persia. I had only seen his picture on Twitter! Amin lives near LA, and we worked on the same book from different parts of the world!  So when I saw someone who looked like him, disappearing through the front door of my hotel, I raced after him! It was Amin! At last! We were so excited to finally meet each other, we immediately dived into an huge conversation — about being artists and making choices, how to serve our creative desires, if compromise was a good thing, and how to sell the work we wanted to make to publishers! The conversation was so passionate, and we were so deeply engrossed, we walked in entirely the wrong direction!


Eventually we found Charlotte Square Gardens, where we would do a performance together. I was going to tell the story of the book, along with some other stories about the magical Simorgh. This phoenix appears in myths and fairytales across Central Asia and the Middle East. I was going to tell some of these rare stories, while Amin was going to do a live painting.




Amin set up a table on the stage, with paints, pots, brushes, and sponges of different sizes. He had delicately cut out a fine stencil, comprising of seven different layers. He would layer one on top of the other to create the painting. It was to be a quicker version of a painting in the book that had taken several days.

Our audience were a lovely mix of ages and families, including a large group of Syrian mothers and children brought by Open Book. They are an organisation led by Marjorie Lotfi Gill, based in Edinburgh, who work with community groups across the region developing and supporting a love of reading, books and stories. They connect people with their wider communities through stories. 

I used a few Farsi words during the performance and asked the audience for translations of words in different languages. We heard that ‘once upon a time’ in Arabic is: كان يا ما كان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان‎ (kân yâ mâ kân fî qadîmi zzamân wsalifî al`aSri wal’awân), and that the Chinese phoenix is called Fenghuang.

One of the stories I told was my version of a Middle Eastern folktale in which the Simorgh paints the birds, giving them all their lovely colours. With Amin beside me, working away with bright red, blue and orange paint, he seemed to turn into the Simorgh himself! I finished the performance with a bit of The Conference of the Birds, another Persian medieval text. The Simorgh disappears, and all the birds go in search of her. At the end of their journey they discover that they are the Simorgh, they are what they have been looking for. My performance ended by telling the audience: ‘You are the Simorgh, and you, and you, and you, you are all the Simorgh.’


Amin showed us the radiant painting he had made, a shining, exquisite Simorgh. He told us about his painting technique of scratching and layering. It is called ‘sgraffito’, from the Italian word sgraffire, to scratch, and he scratches through layers of wet paint to reveal what is underneath. 




Then we were taken to the bookshop and found a long queue of lovely families all waiting to have their books signed. 





Amin drew little tiny birds inside each book. 


When it was all over we went off to have snacks with our special translator Mahdi, who helped me with my Farsi, more than with Amin’s English – which was brilliant by the way!




Mehdi, Amin and Sally Pomme

Thank you Edinburgh Book Festival for bringing writers and illustrators together and giving them a chance to meet from other sides of the world.

‘The bird flapped her wings, and the tree shook. Seeds blew, seeds flew, seeds scattered across Earth. Life came into being.’
The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Pomme Clayton and Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif


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