The Conference of the Birds
By Farid ud-Din Attar. Translated by Sholeh Wolpé
Publisher: New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2017.
How do writers describe a mystical path that takes a lifetime? Dante, in the Divine Comedy recounted a journey down into the pits of hell, up a mountain of purgation, and finally ascending into the heavens. John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress saw religious life as a pilgrimage through many strange lands. The Bhagavad Gita takes place on a battlefield. In the 12th century Sufi classic The Conference of the Birds, Farid-Ud-Din Attar offers the imagery of a huge flock of birds invited by the Hoopoe bird, as murshid or spiritual guide, to journey back to God. The different species of birds represent the various personalities, whims, and quirks of human beings. Attar uses stories, humour, and drama to encourage his listeners forward on their spiritual path.
This new translation by an Iranian-American poet, Sholeh Wolpé, offers a fresh, and powerful and lean, version of Attar’s most celebrated work. One of her reviewers describes this rendering of the text into English as having brought “beauty, elegance, and precision.” Another calls it “as close to the original a reader can come in translation.” There are many other English translations to choose from, some more lyrical, some rhyming, some prose. For her translation Wolpé chose a style she calls “poetic prose and contemporary verse,” seeking to convey the “rhythm” of the original. The net effect is a version conveying Attar’s meanings with hard-hitting clarity.
The birds offer complaints and justifications familiar to modern seekers. When first approached to return to God they give a long list of excuses as to why union with God is out of reach. Then, once they commit to seek their Beloved, they offer another elaborate set of reasons why the demands of a spiritual path are too great. For those who assumed the journey would not require too much time or effort, the Hoopoe corrects their mistaken view:
Don’t presume the road is short!
Many oceans and deserts lie between the Beloved and us.
Only the brave can be Wayfarers in the Path,
For the journey is long and the waters deep.
It’s best to go on this journey weeping and laughing
And riddled with amazement.
If we discover even a trace of the Beloved,
That will be something!…
Since life without the Beloved isn’t worth a dime
Go ahead, be brave, discard your precious life.
If you are willing to give up your precious existence,
The Beloved will reward you with eternal existence.
The Hoopoe bird offers encouragement and advises bravery. “Go on, be bold. Take the first step. Being a lover and being fearful don’t mix.”
One bird, full of self-pity, complains that his bad luck and resulting misery bar his progress. The Hoopoe answers:
Mad, conceited bird, what you are soaked in
From head to toe are just cravings…
Life passes by, so go ahead,
You pass it by too.
Abandon it, don’t look back.
Nothing is permanent.
Attach your heart to even one thing
And you’ve stripped it of sweet life.
Attar counsels that the material world will never satisfy; lavishing love and attention on it is a waste.
How much oil have we poured on the sand!
How many pearls have we hung from the throat of a pig!
How many times have we set up a feast and left hungry!
The answer to every bird’s complaint, excuse, and protest is the Beloved. And the Beloved can be reached only within, in what Attar calls “the Cave of Oneness.”
Bravely smash your natural instincts
And make the Cave of Oneness your home.
Once you have settled in that cave,
The Beloved of the World will visit you there.
The master is the giver. If you are fortunate enough to have been called forward onto this journey back to God, then you have already received everything you need. And everything that happens to you is a precious gift from him.
…it is because Solomon’s gaze
fell on me but for a moment.
That bounty did not give me silver and gold,
But in that one glance I found grace.
If you have the Beloved, you have all that you need.
The seven seas will be but a bridge beneath your feet.
On this journey we will learn humility. As Attar reminds us, not even an “eyelash of ego” can remain if we wish to be with the Beloved.
Become nothing to become
Absorbed in the Beloved’s presence.
If you remain full of yourself,
How can there be room for the Beloved?
Not until you vanish in annihilation’s humility
Will you be accepted in the court of the Eternal.
The birds endure terrible trials on their way back to God. They lose all their feathers. They exhaust all their strength, courage, and determination, and yet at the end of the journey they realize that they have not succeeded. They confess to God,
Creator, I am a helpless weakling in your Path.
I am like a lame ant in the deep of your well.
I do not know where I come from,
Where I stand, or who I am.
Bodiless, luckless, useless,
Destitute, distracted, and a coward…
I am caught in the crack of the door…
Open the door wider for helpless me;
Show the way to this lost one.
When they at last see the face of the Beloved, and hear his voice, this is what happens.
That Grace took pity on me, and
forgave me all I had committed and all that I had not…
The Beloved says, “Enter, you are worthy of the Way.”
“The valleys you traversed were in Me,
The bravery you displayed was Mine.
You were asleep in the valleys of my attributes…
Become Me, to find yourselves once more.”
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.