A Review of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, translated by Sholeh Wolpé — July 29, 2017
by Christopher Nelson
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and scholar from Persia, known today as Rumi, has been translated into at least twenty-three languages and is one of the best-selling poets of all time. Even the rare poetry lover who hasn’t read one of the many translations of his work is certainly familiar with bits of his wisdom, perhaps reproduced on a greeting card, tea bag, or yoga studio wall. Nearly eight-hundred years after his death, Rumi is so famous that the BBC dispatched cultural journalists to explain why he’s the most popular poet in the United States. I begin this review with Rumi because it is remarkable that a poet so famous today had a contemporary so similar that is unknown by most. His name was Sheikh Farid-Ud-Din or, simply, Attar.
There are a few versions of the story of the meeting of Rumi and Attar, and perhaps they are all apocryphal, but we do know that Rumi credits Attar with inspiring his own written words, and we do know that Attar saw in the young man a powerful potential. In both of their poetries, there is an undeniable similarity in subject, style, and intention. The possibility to communicate spiritual wisdom, to transform, to teach us how to better live, and to do this with intense reliance on parable and allegory—all of these the two poets share.
Born in 1145 in Nishapur, a city in northern Iran, Attar was an apothecary, a pharmacist, a healer in addition to being a writer. Probably a Sufi—or possibly a scholar who was knowledgeable of the Sufi way—Attar completed the epic poem The Conference of the Birds when he was about forty. The poem, approximately 350 pages, is intended to be read as allegory. In it, personified birds speak about the various challenges and conditions of the human experience, and these speeches are commented upon by the wisest bird, the hoopoe. The themes of those conversations are then expanded upon in a following parable or parables. It’s a fascinating form, one that compels further reading. The hoopoe is an allegorical guide, much like a sheikh would guide a disciple. We see this rhetorical structure throughout; for example, in the poem “The Peacock’s Excuse,” the peacock expresses its desire to transcend the suffering of “this black place,” but it is convinced that it isn’t worthy of reaching the heavenly court. The hoopoe then advises the peacock that “fanciful desires live in the house of the ego, / but the only home for sincerity is in the heart.” True to the form, that dialogic pair of poems is followed by a parable, “The Parable of Paradise’s Chains,” in which we read that “those who go to Paradise expecting the promised ambrosia, / well, that’s all they will get, because that’s all they know and believe.”
Each pair of poems and the following parable (or parables) are somehow both accessible and delightfully enigmatic. Translator Sholeh Wolpé has consistently bridged the centuries, the languages, and the cultures to convey Attar’s complex ideas, without simplification or dogma. She describes this difficult task in detail in the introduction. In the original Persian, The Conference of the Birds is a masnavi, a form comprised of ten- or eleven-syllable lines in rhyming couplets. Because her intention was to capture the beauty of ideas not the repetition of form, she chose to present the epic poem in poetic prose, a decision that avoids the stilted and forced language of some translations. In addition to spiritual insight, Attar intended his work to also entertain, a challenge that Wolpé explains “requires … readability, as well as poetic beauty.”
But spiritual insight is paramount here. The Conference of the Birds can be regarded as a guidebook for awakening, for experiencing the Beloved. Wolpé writes, “Attar believes that suffering destroys the ego. And since suffering is born out of love, love is also the destroyer of ego. When the ego is annihilated, the inner eye blinks open.” And each of the parables is—or attempts to be—a glimpse, a quick look, through the egoless eye.
One of the things I enjoy most about this new translation is Wolpé’s thorough introduction, in which she details many of the difficulties of translating ancient Persian into contemporary English and many of the cultural conceptions that are difficult to bridge. For example, “In Sufi tradition, ego stands between our true self and the Beloved. Once it is destroyed, we unite with the Divine and hence recover our true self.” So this is not the ego of Sigmund Freud. Wolpé chose the term ego where Attar was using four different words that don’t have corollaries in English—taab, kheesh, khod, and nafs. She explains, “Here ego does not equal identity. The term used in this book comes from the Latin root, e’go, meaning ‘I,’ ‘the self that feels, acts, or thinks.’ It is our lower self, the upholder of self-righteousness and self-proclaimed truths.” Wolpé explains also that there is “an absence of gender in Persian nouns and pronouns,” so she chose to represent the birds as not strictly male or female, a decision that mirrors the genderlessness of the soul.
Built into the structure of the book is a journey the birds make through a series of valleys, each representing a stage on a spiritual quest away from ego absorption and toward realization of the Beloved. When the birds reach the Valley of Love, we hear of Majnun, a man obsessively in love with a woman from a forbidden tribe. Majnun convinces a shepherd to dress him in the skin of a sheep and lead him, concealed inside the flock, toward the woman. It is a humorous and pathetic tale of obsession and dedication, and like all of the parables it contains some kernel of wisdom, some maxim we can consider or even live by: “The first step in erasing who you are / is to make a gift of your life.”
I could say if you enjoy Rumi, Kabir, the Psalms, or the parables of Jesus, you would love to read Attar; and while true, I think Attar, in the adroit hands of Sholeh Wolpé, can appeal to anyone, not just those interested in spiritual or mystical verse. His understanding of the search for love, his humor, his ability to speak beyond religious and cultural boundaries, his willingness to face death—the timelessness and lucid rendering of the grand themes makes Attar not just a great Persian poet but a poet for all of humanity.