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Can Literature Save the World? On Translating Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”

By Sholeh Wolpé

Sholeh Wolpé’s translation of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds was published in March 2017 by W. W. Norton & Co. Sholeh will be discussing the book this Thursday, April 6 at Poets House in NYC.

Can literature save the world? According to twelfth-century Iranian Sufi mystic poet Attar, it is not the world that needs saving, rather it is we who are in dire need of rescue—from the clutches of our own ego, that “cyclone of calamities.”

He writes,

Both worlds, the upper and the lower, are but a drop of water, neither here nor there. When that droplet first appears, it is replete with reflections. But even if all those reflections were of iron, the hardest of metals, you could still shatter them back into water drops. Whatever has its foundation in water, be it fire, is nothing but illusion. When water itself is not stable, how can you use it as a firm foundation?

Attar repeatedly warns us about our conceited selves, our nafs (نفس), which I have translated as ego, from the Latin root ē′gō, meaning “I,” our lower self, the upholder of self-righteousness and self-proclaimed truths. 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. In this light, to die means to let go of our lower self, and when that happens, church, temple, pagoda, mosque, or synagogue, religion or faithlessness, virtue or vice, all disappear and become irrelevant. Although all paths eventually lead to the Beloved, the annihilation of the ego shortens the path to the Source. When the ego is annihilated, the inner eye blinks open and we reclaim our true identity.

The Conference of the Birds is an allegorical epic poem about our human struggle, both physical and spiritual. It is a brilliant, engrossing story peppered with beguiling parables that not only guide and instruct, but also entertain. Indeed, this method of storytelling through poetry was later adopted by future master poets, namely Hafiz and Rumi. Attar’s use of everyday details, stories, and historical chronicles is a masterful technique he invented to animate the deeper meanings of what we consider “reality.”

Attar, Sheikh Farīd-Ud-Dīn, فرید الدین عطار (CE 1145–1220), was born in Nishapur (Nīšāpūr), a city in the northeast region of Iran. Information about Attar’s life is scarce and has been mythologized over the centuries. Of the forty works bearing Attar’s name, approximately seven are verifiably his, including The Conference of the Birds, which he completed around 1187 CE when he was about forty years old.

The story of The Conference of the Birds is as follows: The birds of the world gather and acknowledge the Great Simorgh as their Sovereign. Simorgh is a mysterious bird who dwells in Mount Qaf, a mythical mountain that wraps around the world. The Hoopoe is elected to lead them through the perilous journey. At the start, each bird presents an elaborate excuse for not being able to make the journey, but the wise Hoopoe addresses their many hesitations, complaints, fears, vanities and questions. For example, the Nightingale is in love with the rose and cannot see how it could leave it behind:

So deeply intoxicated am I with the rose
that my own existence is nothing to me.
It’s demanding to be filled with such love;
my desire for the slender rose is sufficient.

A nightingale has no stamina for one like the Great Simorgh.
For this bird, the love of a rose is quite enough.
My beloved’s many folded petals calm my heart.
How can I bereave myself of such joy?

The wise Hoopoe answers:

You who love only the face and form,
don’t be so coy in love’s grace.

Your love for the rose leaves you
torn and frayed by its thorns.
You are debased by it
as much as you are obsessed by it.
Yes, for now the face of a rose is beautiful,
but give it a week and look again.

The Hoopoe then offers the rose The Parable of the Princess and the Beggar. In the story, a destitute dervish falls in love with a beautiful princess who sweeps by him and laughs:

All the beggar saw was her smile. He fell to the dust in a flood of tears. He had possessed half a loaf of bread and half a soul, and now in one swoop he’d lost them both.

In the end the princess’s servants decide to do away with the dervish. The princess secretly summons the man and out of compassion bids him to escape. The dervish asks,

If you are going to let them cut my head off without showing any pity, why then did you smile at me when I first saw you pass by?

The princess replied: “Artless man, when I first saw you I was laughing at you, fool. Yet, while it may be fine to laugh at you, it was unjust to laugh in your face.” After she spoke, she disappeared like smoke—as if she was never there.

One by one the birds voice their concerns, fears, and vanities. One of the birds says,

The journey is long
and the thought of death frightens me.
I am neither brawny nor brave.
My heart is so terrified of death
that I may not even last
through the first leg of this quest.

Should the angel of death come to claim me,
I shall go with him, but sobbing,
for if you pick up a blade against death,
it will split both sword and hand in two.
In a world full of hands that clutch swords,
there is nothing within reach but regret.

The Hoopoe answers the fearful bird:

Feeble, powerless bird,
what do you imagine remains of you
but a handful of bones and rotten marrow?
Don’t you know life only lasts the wink of an eye,
that you’re born to die and ride the wind as dust?

Each twilight the sun travels, sword in hand,
chopping off heads and filling the sky’s
inverted bowl with blood.
Whether you are a sinner or a saint,
you’re just a drop of water mixed with dust.

Have you ever seen a drop of water battle the sea?
When the end comes, even if
you were the monarch of the world,
nothing you could say or do
would save you from rejoining the earth.

Then, to better illustrate the point, the Hoopoe offers The Parable of Socrates in the Throes of Death:

When Socrates was in the throes of death, one of his students asked: “Master, after we have washed your body and wrapped it in a shroud, where should we bury you?”

He replied, “If you can find me, my boy, bury me wherever you like. I’ve lived long and while alive I was not able to find myself; how then can you find me in death? As I exit this world, not even a strand of my hair truly knows itself.”

After addressing all their concerns and fears, the Hoopoe describes in great detail, and beautiful language, the seven valleys they must cross in order to reach the court of the great Simorgh:

1. Valley of the Quest, where the Wayfarer begins by casting aside all dogma, belief, and unbelief.
2. Valley of Love, where reason is abandoned for the sake of love.
3. Valley of Knowledge, where worldly knowledge becomes utterly useless.
4. Valley of Detachment, where all desires and attachments to the world are given up. Here, what is assumed to be “reality” vanishes. 
5. Valley of Unity, where the Wayfarer realizes that everything is connected and that the Beloved is beyond everything, including harmony, multiplicity, and eternity.
6. Valley of Wonderment, where, entranced by the beauty of the Beloved, the Wayfarer becomes perplexed and, steeped in awe, finds that he or she has never known or understood anything.
7. Valley of Poverty and Annihilation, where the self disappears into the universe and the Wayfarer becomes timeless, existing in both the past and the future.

When the birds hear the description of these valleys, they bow their heads in distress; some even die of fright right then and there. But despite their trepidations, they begin the great journey. On the way, many perish of thirst, heat, or illness, while others fall prey to wild beasts, panic, and violence. Only thirty birds make it to the abode of Simorgh. In the end, the birds learn that they themselves are the Simorgh; the name “Simorgh in Persian means thirty (si) birds (morgh). They eventually come to understand that the majesty of that Beloved is like the sun that can be seen reflected in a mirror. Yet, whoever looks into that mirror will also behold his or her own image. 

We are the birds in the story. All of us have our own ideas and ideals, our own fears and anxieties, as we hold on to our own version of the truth. Like the birds of this story, we may take flight together, but the journey itself will be different for each of us. Attar tells us that truth is not static, and that we each tread a path according to our own capacity. It evolves as we evolve. Those who are trapped within their own dogma, clinging to hardened beliefs or faith, are deprived of the journey toward the unfathomable Divine, which Attar calls the Great Ocean. The Great Ocean does not turn away any soul. Some arrive at it as pure drops of water, enter, are absorbed, and become one with the Ocean; others arrive trapped inside themselves, egos intact, and enter the welcoming Ocean as well. However, they sink to its depths and remain there, knowing only themselves, never the Ocean.

This epic poem is a masnavi, a poetic form invented by the Persians. It adheres to a meter of ten or eleven syllables per line, in rhyming couplets. The Conference of the Birds consists of a total of 4,724 couplets, including the prologue and the epilogue. I don’t believe it is possible to transfer thousands of rhyming couplets in twelfth-century Persian into formal rhyming verse in English without sacrificing a great deal of what makes the original work beautiful, moving, comprehensible, funny, and wise. Therefore, I have dispensed with rhyme. This is not a translation of form, nor is it a scholar’s translation. I have recreated the parables as poetic prose to render the work accessible and entertaining, as Attar intended it to be. Further, I have followed the absence of gender in Persian nouns and pronouns. The Divine, Simorgh, the Hoopoe, the Wayfarers, and all the birds are not necessarily male or female. The human soul is genderless, and I have respected that in my translation.

Twelfth-century Persian and contemporary English are as different as sky and sea. The best I can do as a poet is to reflect one into the another. The sea can reflect the sky with its moving stars, shifting clouds, gestations of the moon, and migrating birds—but ultimately the sea is not the sky. By nature, it is liquid. It ripples. There are waves. If you are a fish living in the sea, you can only understand the sky if its reflection becomes part of the water.

Sufi mystic poet Rumi considered Attar his master, calling him “the spirit” and himself “its shadow.” He wrote:

Attar traveled through all the seven cities of love
                               While I am only at the bend of the first alley.

To this day, the beauty and wisdom of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds remains unsurpassed. This book may not be able to change the world, but its magic is an antidote to the bitterest ego-concocted poison of our times: extremism. As Attar writes in the epilogue:

This book is an ornament for the ages.
It offers something for both the high and low.
If you came sad and frozen to this book,
its hidden fire will blaze and melt your ice.
Yes, these verses are magic:
they grow more potent with each reading.
They are like beauty under a veil
that reveals its loveliness slowly.

All quotes are from The Conference of the Birds, by Attar, translated by Sholeh Wolpé (W. W. Norton & Co, 2017). 

Read Sholeh Wolpé’s translation of Farugh Farrokhzad’s “Connection”

Read the July 2013 issue: Iran’s Postrevolution Generation

Read the July 2004 issue: Speaking In Tongues: Religious Literature

Published Apr 5, 2017   Copyright 2017 Sholeh Wolpé

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