Attar’s Sparrow in the Library

At a conference for educators in California, I share the moment I fell in love with learning. Rarely do educators talk about feelings like love in relation to their profession. Unless as a disciple of Freire, one writes a book entitled Re-inventing a Pedagogy of Love.

The assignment for this workshop at the conference is unique. We have been asked to reflect on the moment we fell in love with learning. In those moments of silence at the conference, I stare at the sunbeams glistening through the windows in the auditorium.  I  am transported to another milder beam forcing itself through the window of my college library in Pakistan in the late 70s. 

Imprisonment by Selma
You imprison the soul in a body,
Then place Death as the watchman.
You give wings to ideas,
Then restrict, through fate, their ability to fly.
روح کو جسم کے پنجرے کا بنا کر قیدی
اس پہ پھر موت کا پہرہ بیٹھا رکھا ہے
دے کے تدبیر کے پنچھی کو اڑانے تو نے
دام تقدیر بھی ہر سمت بچھا رکھا ہے
Naz Khialvi (1947 – 2010), Pakistan

Books are hard to come by in the 1970s of Pakistan

In this memory, I am in the Government College for Women, Faisalabad, when it was located in the center of the city. I have found a quiet space and am surrounded with my own books as I begin my homework. The library is small and quiet. The cabinets are locked. We can check out not more than three books at time. Browsing is not an option. We need to know what we want, and once we have told the librarian, she will take her time to get to the cabinet and pull it out. Each time she does this, she reminds me that the book is due in two weeks and cannot be renewed. This does not upset me. It’s the norm in which I grew up. Books are hard to come in public spaces and are preferably kept locked to avoid being stolen.

brown book page
Photo by Wendy van Zyl on

Tranquil but dark, the periphery of this oddly shaped library is furnished with glass fronted cabinets, the kind you’d find in your grandparent’s home from eighty years ago. The room, like the cabinets, has been adjusted as the number of students increases. Fifty more students means a wall is  broken down.  Mismatched chairs and tables are placed in the center. 

The bookcases were salvaged from departments disbanded to make way for the newly required Islamic and Pakistan Study departments of the late 70s, which did not require extra reading. The slim government-issued textbooks suffice.

A Sparrow Finds its Home in the Library

As furniture is brought in, windows are covered.  The corner window is left open. The barred window separates the living quarters of the college employees. From my table, I glance at the sunbeams forcing through the lone window.  A sparrow finds its way into the coolness inside.  It flies  toward the nest on top of the bookshelf closest to me.  

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales will Become Part of my story

I return to this fifty year old edition of the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and open it at the Summoner’s tale, ridiculing the Friars in hell. I turn the page carefully, concerned about fines for causing damage to the book and with each turn garlicky fumes emanate from the book. It’s as if it’s been shut all these years and has ingested the fumes of its reeking inhabitants.

I understand what I read but it will take decades for me to understand how these stories of the thirteenth century England are my stories too.

How does a teenager in Faisalabad connect with a bawdy English poet of the fourteenth century? Very seriously, until, decades later, her older self sees the irony of a chaddor-wearing young woman deciphering the raunchiest poetry in print.

Persistence in Learning Keeps me Reading

Despite not seeing the humor of that moment, it is a memory of extreme pleasure. A peaceful pleasure of falling in love with the mysteries of an ancient text. The anticipation of knowing triggers an excitement that knowing cannot.

The anticipation of knowing triggers an excitement that knowing cannot.

The sparrow chatters in its nest on the bookshelf, but I am consistent in what I am supposed to do to prepare for my class. My struggle to understand the text is what is what I remember as my love of learning.

This is what I share with my colleagues at the conference of teaching and learning in California.  My love of learning is in the complexity of the knowledge that I acquire, all the time looking for myself in what I learn.  I might not have realized this in the library, but I keep returning to the struggle.

I will not be the Sparrow from the Conference of the Birds

The sparrow might have distracted me at the time, but unlike the gangishk, گنجشک (sparrow) in Attar’s sufi poem of the thirteenth Century Iran, I choose to continue.  And I know this is what engages my sister, Selma, too.  I know her well enough from our previous journeys that this one about memories will also be just as fulfilling.  

Centuries after Chaucer’s and Attar’s pilgrims, Selma and I are venturing on our online Ziarat (pilgrimage).  As we travel, we weave stories from cultured that we embraced.

sparrow perched on bench
Photo by Vladyslav Dukhin on


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