Toward the end of The Conference of the Birds, the poet presents us with a striking image.
A man in China has become a stone;
He sits and mourns, and at each muffled groan
Weeps melancholy tears, which then are found
As pebbles scattered on the ground. 1
It’s an evocative passage that invites the reader to seek its deeper meaning. We may imagine a living man transformed into a statue, torn by the winds. We ponder long after we have closed the book. What does it mean, this man of stone whose tears rattle down his dusty cheeks? In the context of the work, perhaps it speaks of the way in which our knowledge of religion can become petrified. Pious and devout learning must always give way to the lived experience of faith.
But possibly, a modern reader may see other meanings. Because in the same way, our knowledge of literature, its possibilities, and limits can sometimes become calcified. As readers, we too can become stone men, barren in our perceptions and thoughts. Then we need to see the written word from a different perspective; we need to experience other forms and the literature of other cultures. This was my experience in turning over the pages of Farid-Ud Din Attar’s classic The Conference of the Birds. I felt as if I were a statue magically transformed into a living man and learning to walk once more.
Written in the 12th century in Persia, the work enchants us with a delightful fable. All of the birds in creation have gathered to express their envy for human beings. The birds have no such art as government and desire a king of their own. The hoopoe, who is more knowledgeable than the rest, steps forward to address them. He tells of the wondrous Simorgh, a great mythological bird from Persian legend. The hoopoe convinces his audience that they must seek the Simorgh and worship him as their king. The birds agree and make the hoopoe their leader in this quest.
But Attar is no Aesop. He won’t be satisfied to tell a few pointed fables with animal characters. His intentions run much deeper. Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, The Conference of the Birds is a religious allegory that seeks to convey spiritual truths in “dark similitudes.” The bird’s quest for the Simorgh represents the soul’s journey to God in the Sufi way of Islam.
As the tale progresses, the birds voice various objections to the search. The finch is too timid; the heron fears to leave the shores of the sea that it loves, and all the other birds chime in with various excuses why they cannot seek the Simorgh. The hoopoe answers them all, both directly and with brief stories or anecdotes. The meanings of some of these are straightforward; others, like the paradoxical questions in Zen Buddhism, shock and goad the reader into a higher plane of thought.
The poet strings each episode like a glowing pearl on the thread of his narrative, drawing the reader into greater and greater awareness of his themes and ecstatic religious experience. Some are beautiful and esoteric, like the passage in which a zodiac is inscribed upon the sand. Others are redolent of a kind of earthy humor, such as the episode in which a lover only notices a blemish in his beloved’s eye once he has ceased to care for her. Attar is a master storyteller and weaves each new element into a glittering necklace of stars.
When the objections have been answered, the hoopoe outlines the way to the Simorgh’s palace and tells of seven valleys that must be crossed. These are the Valley of the Quest in which religious knowledge must be abandoned. Then the birds must cross the Valley of Love and experience the ecstatic desire for the one they seek. These are followed by the Valleys of Knowlege, Detachment, and Unity, in which the seekers rid themselves of worldly understanding and see the underlying harmony of creation. Finally, the suppliants must enter the Valley of Wonderment and Poverty, in which their very selves will vanish.
As an Orthodox Christian and an American with little knowledge of Persian literature or Sufism, Attar’s work gave me many hours of refreshing and pleasurable education. I have now read the work in two translations. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis collaborated to imitate the rhymed couplet form of the original. While Sholeh Wolpe’s free-verse translation, with its mixture of prose and poetry, gives a greater sense of the true beauty of Attar’s work, as in the following passage.
When the sun of knowledge shimmers
in the Beloved’s exalted sky,
each traveler is given sight
according to his own measure and his share. 2
The birds’ quest is arduous, and of the thousands that set out in a thunder of wings, only thirty remain when, at last, they reach the palace of the Simorgh. The attendants welcome them and usher them into their highest bliss. The book ends on a note of mysterious transcendence rarely matched in literature. Like Dante’s pilgrim, the birds have come to that state that cannot be described in mere words. And so, even a poem as intoxicating as Attar’s has limits, for the experience it seeks to convey is incommunicable and beyond language itself.
Books, though, are true magic, and works like The Conference of the Birds can cast their glamour even on those wearied with the bleak landscape of modern literature and the troubles of our times. And I hope some readers here will consider taking it up.
But my experience exploring it prompted a further reflection. The world of books has no borders, neither in time nor on any map. Simply, by opening a volume, we may step back into the disputes of medieval Islam or experience the plight of the Unfortunate Traveler with Thomas Nashe. All times are present to the reader. And his true country is the written word and the beauty of the mind. Nations may fall, and plagues may take their course, but the kingdom of stories lies forever open and forever green for those who desire to enter it. I hope to see you there.
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- Attar/ Darbandi & Davis Tr. Penguin Books, p. 180
2. Attar/ Wolpe Tr. W. W. Norton Company, p. 78
Artwork: Page from an illuminated manuscript of Conference of the Birds illustrated by Habiballa of Sava. New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.
Teaching Stone Men to Walk, copyright Jonathan Golding, 2021. All rights reserved.