Flight of the Ibis is a musical theater drama written by Alan Roland, PhD. Its setting is 10th Century Cordoba – a time and place where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in harmony. The play tells of an imaginary week in time where different faiths embraced their differences and managed for those three centuries to co-exist in peace.
Central to the play are two major themes: the first is the prophecy of the Kabbalah, the centerpiece of Jewish mysticism, that there would be a new Adam, a new spiritual evolution in humanity. The second is the symbolic meaning of the Ibis in Sufi or Islamic mysticism, that it is a sacred bird that soars to God.
The three main characters of the play — Joachim Ben Israel, the Caliph Ahmed, and Sa’ida — each have their own intense spiritual visions and strivings: for a greater spiritual evolution in individuals; for an inclusive and harmonious society; and to be at one with God. While there are societal forces that counter their visions, particularly fundamentalist attitudes, it is their own personal flaws that ultimately destroy their efforts. For Joachim, it is his paranoid attitudes and meglomania; for the Caliph Ahmed, it is his desperate need for immortality before he dies; and for Sa’ida, it is her intense need to reach transcendent states while ignoring her physical infirmities.
The relevance of the play for today: Fundamentalist attitudes toward reality, paranoid attitudes of certainty over who your enemies are, meglomania of feeling one’s group is the ultimate and should rule over all, wanting to assure one’s immortality and place in history regardless of the cost, ignoring vulnerabilities and limitations, are all key elements that undermine the social fabric.
The Umayyad Caliphate was founded in Damascus in 661 CE and gradually encompassed the entire Islamic world from Persia to Spain. It was overthrown by the Abassids in 750 CE, who moved their capital to Baghdad. Abd-ar-RahmanI, the only survivor of the Umayyads, fled from Damascus to Spain where he established an Umayyad Emirate or kingdom in 756. The Umayyads conquered most of Spain and pushed into France where they are finally stopped by Charles Martel. In 929 CE Abd-ar-Rahman III changes the Umayyad Emirate to the Umayyad Caliphate in rivalry with the Abassid Caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimid Calikiphate in Egypt.
The Umayyad Caliphate was by far the most advanced culture in Europe, drawing upon the great heritage of the ancient world: Biblical, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine. It was noted for its literature, philosophy, spiritual culture, science, and architecture. It was equally known for its remarkable interfaith harmony among Muslims, Jews, and Christians for almost three centuries. The Jews played a major role in the Caliphate, participating fully in its cultural life with great contributions in literature and philosophy. They were involved in flourishing trade with other countries, and with spreading the Caliphate’s cultural heritage into Europe, particularly Greek and Byzantine culture for the first time, which enhanced the intellectual development of medieval Europe. It is called, “The Golden Age of the Jews.”
In 1031 the Caliphate succumbed to internal dissension and became greatly weakened. It was conquered not long after in 1040 by the Almoravids, a fundamentalist Muslim kingdom from Morocco. In 1147 they were in turn conquered by another fundamentalist Muslim kingdom from Morocco, the Almohads. In both of these kingdoms in Cordoba there was a severe decline in the rich cultural diversity and in the remarkable interfaith harmony of the Umayyad Caliphate. This culminated in the Christian Reconquest of Cordoba in 1236, and the Inquisition.
“The sharp edge of the razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
— Katha Upanishad
St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan hosted a staged reading of Flight of the Ibis on November 17, 2011, featuring Lauren Flanigan in the role of Sa’ida, the wife of the Caliph, Robert Stattel as the Caliph, and Christopher Martin as Joachim, with music by Kinan Azmeh, stage direction by Beth Greenberg, choreography by Korhan Basaran, and projections designed by Dennis Parichy. This performance was followed by an interfaith discussion with panelists representing the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions.
On May 3, 2014, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Shelter Rock, Manhasset hosted another performance of Flight of the Ibis followed by an interfaith discussion. David Margulies took on the role of Joachim Ben Israel, and Jacqueline Knapp the Chorus. Then on October 26, 2014, Flight of the Ibis was performed in the PepsiCo Theatre in the Performing Arts Center of SUNY Purchase, this time with lighting design as well as projections. It was again followed by an interfaith discussion.
To read more about the play production, its cast and crew, please visit www.flightoftheibis.com.