Robyn Creswell

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The Con­fer­ence of the Birds by At­tar, trans­lated from the Per­sian by Sholeh Wolpé

The Con­fer­ence of the Birds by At­tar, trans­lated from the Per­sian by Sholeh Wolpé. Nor­ton, 376 pp., $25.95

Al­most noth­ing is known for cer­tain about the life of Farid ud-Din At­tar, a Per­sian poet cel­e­brated for his de­light­ful long poem The Con­fer­ence of the Birds. He had no con­tem­po­rary bi­og­ra­phers and the few vi­gnettes of his life that do ex­ist feel apoc­ryphal. He was born to­ward the mid­dle of the twelfth cen­tury and made his liv­ing as an apothe­cary (At­tar, a pen name, means “per­fumist” or “phar­ma­cist”). In ad­di­tion to The Con­fer­ence of the Birds, he com­posed three other long nar­ra­tive po­ems, a large col­lec­tion of shorter verses, and a charm­ing book of anec­dotes about fa­mous fol­low­ers of Su­fism, the mys­ti­cal branch of Is­lam.1 Later Per­sian poets such as Jalal ad-Din Rumi in the thir­teenth cen­tury and Hafez in the four­teenth were openly in­debted to At­tar’s work. He prob­a­bly died around 1220, when Mon­gol armies sacked his home city of Nisha­pur. Ac­cord­ing to one tra­di­tion, af­ter an en­emy soldier de­cap­i­tated him, At­tar picked up his head and re­cited the Bis­ar­nama (“Book of the Man with No Head,” an ac­tual work, though At­tar did not com­pose it).

The Con­fer­ence of the Birds is widely un­der­stood to il­lus­trate and al­le­go­rize Sufi teach­ings—Henry Corbin, the French scholar of Is­lamic phi­los­o­phy, called it a “peak of mys­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence”—but it is not cer­tain At­tar ever be­longed to a Sufi or­der or stud­ied with a qual­i­fied mas­ter. This is cu­ri­ous, for the teacher–stu­dent re­la­tion was at the heart of me­dieval Su­fism. Each con­gre­ga­tion was cen­tered on a par­tic­u­lar sheikh, and one could only be­come a Sufi af­ter in­ten­sive study. The early mys­tics of the ninth and tenth cen­turies preached aus­ter­ity in re­sponse to the cor­rup­tion of rulers in Bagh­dad and the Is­lamic east, and they coun­tered the strict le­gal­ism of the cler­ics with es­o­teric, of­ten sym­bolic in­ter­pre­ta­tions of re­li­gious texts. The Su­fis taught an ex­ag­ger­ated form of monothe­ism: not only is there a sin­gle God, but God is all that truly ex­ists; ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing our worldly selves, is merely a shadow of His pres­ence. Ac­cord­ingly, Sufi sheikhs urged their fol­low­ers to dis­dain wealth and bod­ily plea­sures. By look­ing in­ward, be­liev­ers were taught to rec­og­nize the affin­ity of their soul with God. Through as­cetic dis­ci­pline, they were guided to­ward a self-an­ni­hi­lat­ing union with the divine.

The Con­fer­ence of the Birds, which is close to five thou­sand lines in the orig­i­nal Per­sian (about the length of Dante’s In­ferno), is an al­le­gory of Su­fism’s cen­tral drama: the soul’s quest to unify it­self with God. The poem tells the story of a flock of birds who fly to the ends of the earth in search of the myth­i­cal Si­morgh, an Ira­nian ver­sion of the phoenix. The ti­tle comes from a pas­sage in the Ko­ran about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in which the king claims to have learned “the speech of the birds” (man­tiq al-tayr), a more lit­eral trans­la­tion of At­tar’s ti­tle. Solomon’s go-be­tween is the hoopoe, a small bird with a spikey crest of feath­ers, who is also the main char­ac­ter of At­tar’s poem. Like a Sufi spir­i­tual guide, or pīr, At­tar’s hoopoe ex­horts the other birds to re­nounce their ma­te­rial com­forts and join him on a dif­fi­cult jour­ney through seven val­leys (the first is the Val­ley of the Quest, the last is the Val­ley of Poverty and Noth­ing­ness) to reach Mount Qaf, home of the Si­morgh. At the be­gin­ning of At­tar’s epic, which is com­posed in rhyming cou­plets, each species hes­i­tates to join the hoopoe for his own rea­sons. The finch com­plains that he is too weak for the jour­ney, the hawk boasts that he al­ready en­joys lofty con­nec­tions, and the nightin­gale is in­fat­u­ated with a flower:

My love is for the rose; I bow to her;

From her dear pres­ence I could never stir.

If she should dis­ap­pear the nightin­gale

Would lose his rea­son and his song would fail.2

In the hoopoe’s re­sponses to each bird, read­ers are given a primer on Sufi

2All ci­ta­tions are from the trans­la­tion of Dick Davis and Afkham Dar­bandi (Pen­guin, 2011). be­liefs and ethics: the im­per­ma­nence of worldly things, the im­por­tance of spir­i­tual courage, the ideal of divine love. In re­sponse to the nightin­gale, the hoopoe warns against de­ceiv­ing ap­pear­ances:

Dear nightin­gale,

This su­per­fi­cial love which makes you quail

Is only for the out­ward show of things.

Re­nounce delu­sion and pre­pare your wings

For our great quest.

Af­ter travers­ing the world, just thirty birds of the orig­i­nal mul­ti­tude re­main to meet the Si­morgh. They ar­rive in his pres­ence only to dis­cover a mys­ti­cal mir­ror: “There in the Si­morgh’s ra­di­ant face they saw/Them­selves, the Si­morgh of the world—with awe/They gazed, and dared at last to com­pre­hend/They were the Si­morgh and the jour­ney’s end.” The birds were the very thing they’d searched for. It is an elo­quent sum­mary of the Sufi teach­ing that the divine lies within each be­liever’s soul. In Per­sian, this col­lapse of dif­fer­ence into unity is clinched by an ac­ci­dent of lan­guage. Si­morgh, the name of the divine bird, breaks down into si-morgh, mean­ing “thirty birds.” How many poets would dare to put so much pres­sure on what is es­sen­tially a lin­guis­tic joke? The Ger­man scholar of Su­fism An­nemarie Schim­mel called it “the most in­ge­nious pun in Per­sian lit­er­a­ture.”

Late in his life, Jorge Luis Borges wrote “The Unend­ing Rose,” a short poem that imag­ines At­tar in his gar­den med­i­tat­ing on a rose—“like one who thinks, not like one who prays”—as the Mon­gol armies close in. Borges projects his own blind­ness onto the Per­sian poet, who is free to imag­ine that the rose he holds and smells is white, or gold, or red. In the last lines of Borges’s poem, the flower loses all speci­ficity, trans­formed into a bot­tom­less al­le­gor­i­cal sign:

Ev­ery­thing is an in­fin­ity of things. You, you are mu­sic,

Rivers, fir­ma­ments, palaces and an­gels,

O end­less rose, in­ti­mate, with­out limit, which the Lord will fi­nally show to my dead eyes3

Borges, who else­where com­pares At­tar fa­vor­ably to Dante, is sub­tly sug­gest­ing that At­tar is first of all an imag­i­na­tive thinker—a poet for whom any one thing might be­come the sym­bol of any other thing. The de­light one gets in read­ing At­tar’s poem has ev­ery­thing to do with its sur­pris­ing turns of thought, its in­tel­lec­tual dar­ing, its lit­er­ary wit.

In his role as spir­i­tual guide, the hoopoe tells the as­sem­bled birds many short tales along their jour­ney to il­lus­trate his ar­gu­ments. The bulk of At­tar’s poem is made up of these sto­ries, adapted from the Ko­ran, Is­lamic his­tory, and the lives of Sufi saints. In the cen­turies af­ter At­tar’s death, as the Mon­gol con­querors of Per­sia con­verted to Is­lam and es­tab­lished courts that ri­valed those of Istanbul and Florence in so­phis­ti­ca­tion and lux­ury, many of these retellings be­came sub­jects for elab­o­rately il­lus­trated manuscripts. The most ex­quis­ite of these, which in­cludes works by the mas­ter painter Be­hzad, was com­mis­sioned in the late fif­teenth cen­tury in Herat, Afghanistan, and is now in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York.4

The retellings of Ko­ranic tales are, in ef­fect, At­tar’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the holy text. Some of them are ter­rif­i­cally strange, seem­ing to up­end the mean­ing of the orig­i­nal story al­to­gether. This sort of re­vi­sion­ism is a Sufi spe­cialty. It is a com­mon­place of mys­ti­cal teach­ing, for ex­am­ple, that the Ko­ranic story of Satan’s re­fusal to bow be­fore Adam as the rest of the an­gels do, a story that ap­pears in sev­eral pas­sages of the Ko­ran, is not ev­i­dence of Satan’s pride, as it is un­der­stood in tra­di­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tions, but rather of his over­pow­er­ing love for God, which did not per­mit him to bow to any­one else. (In this sense, Satan is the model monothe­ist.) At­tar

3Borges: Se­lected Po­ems, trans­lated by Alas­tair Reed (Pen­guin, 2000), p. 367. 4An il­lus­trated vol­ume of the epic, which in­cludes these orig­i­nal fif­teenth cen­tury im­ages along with oth­ers from a va­ri­ety of sources, was pub­lished in 2014 as The Can­ti­cle of the Birds: Il­lus­trated in East­ern Is­lamic Paint­ing (Paris: Édi­tions Diane de Sel­liers).

goes fur­ther, say­ing that God’s curse of Satan is to be prized, since any form of divine at­ten­tion, even in the form of a curse, must be counted a bless­ing.

The most im­por­tant Ko­ranic nar­ra­tive for At­tar’s poem is the story of Joseph, which the Ko­ran it­self calls “the best of all sto­ries.” Joseph, who was cast into a well and then sold into slav­ery by the very broth­ers who pledged to watch over him, makes many ap­pear­ances in The Con­fer­ence of the Birds, most of­ten as a sym­bol of the pure soul. At the end of At­tar’s poem, be­fore the birds con­front them­selves in the mir­ror, they are shown a ledger of their worldly deeds. At­tar com­pares this bal­ance sheet to the slave mer­chant’s re­ceipt that Joseph re­veals to his broth­ers when they meet in Egypt. It is one of the most pow­er­ful pas­sages in the poem, mov­ing be­tween Ko­ranic orig­i­nal, At­tar’s fa­ble, and the reader’s con­science:

As they read They un­der­stood that it was they who’d led

The lovely Joseph into slav­ery— Who had de­prived him of his lib­erty

Deep in a well, then ig­no­rantly sold

Their cap­tive to a pass­ing chief for gold

(Can you not see that at each breath you sell

The Joseph you im­pris­oned in that well,

That he will be the king to whom you must

Naked and hun­gry bow down in the dust?)

While much of Sufi lit­er­a­ture is es­o­teric, me­chan­i­cally al­le­gor­i­cal, and spir­i­tu­ally high-strung, it can also be play­ful and ex­per­i­men­tal (the same might be said of Jewish mys­ti­cal lit­er­a­ture). At­tar is skilled at retelling old sto­ries to re­veal un­sus­pected mean­ings, and he has a spe­cial lik­ing for sto­ries that turn on some dra­matic re­ver­sal of for­tune—a re­li­gious con­ver­sion, a king brought low, a slave raised high. One ef­fect of these topsy-turvy nar­ra­tives is to cast doubt on the per­ma­nence or even le­git­i­macy of any worldly power. Kings, like roses, will not last for­ever, and the man who seems to be a sovereign might ac­tu­ally be a slave to his pas­sions. At­tar’s sus­pi­cion of au­thor­ity lends his po­etry an at­trac­tively mod­ern note, but this skep­ti­cism is deeply rooted in his own times. In me­dieval Iran, Sufi com­mu­ni­ties emerged for the most part out­side the royal courts, which they re­garded as dens of de­bauch­ery and worldly in­trigue. The mys­tics’ leg­endary piety and as­cetic way of life stood as a re­buke to the in­tem­per­ance of rulers (as well as the hypocrisy of of­fi­cial cler­ics). At­tar boasted of never hav­ing writ­ten a poem in praise of a king—“Why eu­lo­gize/Some id­i­otic fool as great and wise?”—and warned against cozy­ing up to pow­er­ful men. “An earthly king acts righ­teously at times,” the hoopoe warns the hawk, “But also stains the earth with hate­ful crimes,/And then who­ever hov­ers near­est him/Will suf­fer most from his de­struc­tive whim.”

Ul­ti­mately more sub­ver­sive than his mis­trust of rulers is At­tar’s con­cep­tion of love. One might even say that for him, Su­fism is fun­da­men­tally the cul­ti­va­tion of love—not in the sen­ti­men­tal sense of an af­fec­tion for par­tic­u­lar peo­ple (al­though this may be the first symp­tom of the real thing), but rather as the state of readi­ness to give up ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing one’s most deeply held be­liefs, for the sake of one’s pas­sion. Love in this sense is a pro­foundly ir­ra­tional and aso­cial—even an­ti­so­cial—force. “Give up the in­tel­lect for love,” the hoopoe urges his dis­ci­ples more than once, “and see/ In one brief mo­ment all eter­nity.”

In a rich and ex­traor­di­nar­ily widerang­ing study, the late scholar of Is­lam Sha­hab Ahmed re­cently ar­gued that the “re­li­gion of love” (mad­hhab-i ‘ishq) is a cen­tral el­e­ment of Mus­lim his­tory and thought, in so­ci­eties stretch­ing from the Balkans to Ben­gal.5 The pop­u­lar stereo­type of Is­lam as a pu­ri­tan­i­cal and le­gal­is­tic faith—an im­age that of­ten per­sists in schol­ar­ship as well—is in his ac­count very far from the lived truth. In view of the enor­mously wide­spread cir­cu­la­tion of po­ems by At­tar, Rumi, and Hafez, as well as the vis­ual art that grew out of these works and the philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ments they en­gaged with, Ahmed ar­gues that Sufi po­etry is a more re­li­able guide to Mus­lim “or­tho­doxy” than ju­rists and the­olo­gians. Ahmed’s ar­gu­ment is a use­ful cor­rec­tive to more preva­lent opin­ions, but it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine At­tar’s no­tion of love ever serv­ing as a guid­ing prin­ci­ple for a so­cial or re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion. For At­tar, love is in­stead a process of trans­for­ma­tion that tran­scends re­ceived no­tions of good and evil. The long­est story in The Con­fer­ence of the Birds is about Sheikh San’an, a pi­ous Mec­can who falls for a Chris­tian girl and con­verts to her re­li­gion—one of At­tar’s typ­i­cal re­ver­sals. The sheikh’s dis­ci­ples re­mon­strate with him, but he re­sponds with a se­ries of blas­phemies, de­liv­ered with the eerie seren­ity of a man who is head-over-heels in love:

One urged him to re­pent; he said: “I do,

Of all I was, all that be­longed thereto.”

One coun­seled prayer; he said: “Where is her face

That I may pray to­ward that blessèd place?” . . . .

And one re­proached him: “Have you no re­gret

For Is­lam and those rites you would for­get?”

He said: “No man re­pents past folly more;

Why is it I was not in love be­fore?”

Divine in­ter­ces­sion even­tu­ally re­stores the sheikh to his orig­i­nal faith—the Chris­tian girl con­verts to Is­lam—but the ex­pe­ri­ence of love has pro­found con­se­quences. It lib­er­ates the sheikh from the out­ward shows of re­li­gion and in­ducts him into its deeper mys­ter­ies. The sheikh’s pas­sion for the Chris­tian girl is clearly an al­le­gory of the spir­i­tual love that rises above earthly dis­tinc­tions of sect. In this sense, the Chris­tian is—para­dox­i­cally—the Mus­lim sheikh’s pīr, or Sufi mas­ter, who ini­ti­ates him into higher truths. But as At­tar tells us in lin­ger­ing de­tail, the girl is beau­ti­ful in a mun­dane sense too: “Her mouth was tiny as a nee­dle’s eye,/Her breath as quick­en­ing as Je­sus’ sigh;/Her chin was dim­pled with a sil­ver

5Sha­hab Ahmed, What Is Is­lam?: The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Is­lamic (Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 2016), pp. 38–46.

well/In which a thou­sand drown­ing Josephs fell.” Later on, the girl de­mands that the sheikh drink for­bid­den wine to prove his love for her, which leads to an equally rap­tur­ous pas­sage about the ef­fects of in­tox­i­ca­tion. The cel­e­bra­tion of phys­i­cal beauty and sen­sual de­light is clearly at odds with At­tar’s stric­tures against worldly plea­sures and out­ward shows. But the poet’s joy in lan­guage, which is it­self a kind of sen­sual plea­sure, seems to out­run his spir­i­tual dic­tums. For some read­ers, it is the thrill of see­ing style tri­umph over stric­ture that gives At­tar’s po­etry its spe­cial ap­peal. Su­fism has a rep­u­ta­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the West, as a “mod­er­ate” or even ec­u­meni­cal branch of Is­lam. An ode of Ibn Arabi, the An­dalu­sian philoso­pher and poet, is of­ten quoted in this spirit:

My heart can take on any form: a meadow for gazelles, a clois­ter for monks,

For the idols, sa­cred ground, Ka‘ba for the cir­cling pil­grim, The ta­bles of the Toráh,

The scrolls of the Qur’án.

I pro­fess the re­li­gion of love; wher­ever its car­a­van turns along the way, that is the be­lief, the faith I keep.6

Su­fism’s rep­u­ta­tion for tol­er­ance and mys­ti­cism has at­tracted re­li­gious syn­cretists of all kinds. In the United States, what goes by the name of Su­fism is ba­si­cally a branch of the New Age move­ment and bears al­most no re­la­tion to Sufi or­ders of the Mid­dle East and South Asia. In this spir­i­tu­al­ist mi­lieu, the po­etry of At­tar, Rumi, and Hafez— like that of the early-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Le­banese poet Khalil Gi­bran—is read as a form of wis­dom lit­er­a­ture, val­ued above all for its say­ings, para­bles, and apothegms.

Sholeh Wolpé, the most re­cent trans­la­tor of At­tar’s epic into English, writes in the foreword to her new ver­sion that “the para­bles in this book trig­ger mem­o­ries deep within us all. The sto­ries in­habit the imag­i­na­tion, and slowly over time, their wis­dom trick­les down into the heart. The process of ab­sorp­tion is unique to every in­di­vid­ual, as is each per­son’s jour­ney. We are the birds in the story.” This is a plau­si­ble re­sponse to At­tar’s ped­a­gogic in­ten­tions. We are plainly meant as read­ers to iden­tify our­selves (or at least our souls) with the birds. But this in­ter­pre­ta­tion ig­nores the lit­er­ary and rhetor­i­cal di­men­sions of At­tar’s poem, and it is in this re­spect that Wolpé’s trans­la­tion of­ten falls short.

The Con­fer­ence of the Birds is not a poem that cries out for re­trans­la­tion. Dick Davis and Afkham Dar­bandi’s ver­sion, first pub­lished in 1984 and re­vised in 2011, is a won­der­fully lu­cid and stylish ren­di­tion. Dar­bandi and Davis main­tain the rhyming cou­plets of the orig­i­nal—they turn the eleven­syl­la­ble lines of the Per­sian into iambic pen­tame­ters—with­out any sac­ri­fice of sense (and as­ton­ish­ingly few stum­bles). Their At­tar is at once folksy and for­mal; the cou­plets main­tain nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum even dur­ing the most es­o­teric flights. Dar­bandi and Davis, ac­com­plished Per­sian­ists, ap­proach the poem pri­mar­ily as a work of imag­i­na­tive lit­er­a­ture, for which At­tar’s con­cep­tion of Sufi doc­trine pro­vides a con­ve­nient struc­ture. No doubt the doc­trine is at times se­ri­ously meant, but it is not where the real ac­tion is— not for the poet, and not for the trans­la­tor, ei­ther.

Wolpé’s ver­sion is rather earnest and earth­bound by com­par­i­son. She makes the cu­ri­ous choice to ren­der the retellings of leg­endary ma­te­rial in what she calls “po­etic prose”—though it is not ex­actly clear what makes it po­etic—and the speech of the birds in un­rhymed verse. But her hoopoe of­ten sounds merely sen­ten­tious:

Cast off the shame of nar­cis­sism. How long will you keep this faith­less­ness, this dis­grace?

Stake your life for the Beloved and you will be

Lib­er­ated from ev­ery­thing, even good and evil.

Sur­ren­der your ego and step into the Path,

Cross that thresh­old danc­ing.

“Sur­ren­der your ego” is a maxim of the yoga stu­dio. Wolpé de­fends her use of that jar­ringly clin­i­cal word, which she em­ploys through­out her trans­la­tion: “I chose ‘ego’ be­cause it felt like a word clos­est in mean­ing to the in­ner con­ceited self, the non-soul. Do not read it as the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal ego, minted by the nine­teenth-cen­tury neu­rol­o­gist and fa­ther of psy­cho­anal­y­sis, Sig­mund Freud.” One must point out that Freud’s word was in fact the Ger­man Ich or, “I”; “ego” was minted by his English trans­la­tor, Ernest Jones. In any case, trans­la­tors get to choose only the words, not the words’ con­no­ta­tions. “Ego” can­not help but make con­tem­po­rary read­ers think of Freud, but also—more wor­ri­somely—of New Ageism and the ten­dency it en­cour­ages to treat lit­er­a­ture as a kind of ther­apy or self-help. This ap­proach is not en­tirely for­eign to At­tar, but it fails to pick up on what is most dis­tinc­tive about his po­etry.

The epi­logue of The Con­fer­ence of the Birds, a poem ded­i­cated to scourg­ing the self, is At­tar’s grand self-eu­logy:

“Un­til the end of time there’ll be no one

Who’ll write about these things as I have done.

I bring pearls from Truth’s sea, and po­etry—

This book’s the proof—has found its seal in me!”

Muham­mad was “the seal of the prophets” in the sense that he was the last prophet, whose rev­e­la­tion su­per­seded all pre­vi­ous rev­e­la­tions. At­tar’s claim to be the seal of the poets seems to be an­other case of his plea­sure in lan­guage—in this case, the plea­sures of hy­per­bole—get­ting the bet­ter of his doc­trine of hu­mil­ity. He was not the last poet, of course; many oth­ers have been guided by At­tar’s ex­am­ple in the nine cen­turies since his death. The best stu­dents rec­og­nized that his virtue lay not in his pre­cepts but in his lim­it­less pow­ers of in­ven­tion.

‘The Con­fer­ence of the Birds’; de­tail of an illustration by Habibal­lah of Sava from a Per­sian man­u­script of the poem by Farid ud-Din At­tar, circa 1600

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