Time for another excursion into non-Western literature. Today it’s Farid Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. This is a classic of Persian literature, written around 1187. It’s about the search for God. By birds.
It’s a long poem, in rhymed couplets, where a few hundred thousand birds get together and talk about finding the mythical king of the gods, the Simorgh. They decide they need a king, and elect the hoopoe.
The what? About all I knew about hoopoes was that they were biblical, somehow. That’s a hoopoe above. It’s certainly a pretty bird, and apparently in Arab legend, Solomon was shielded by hoopoes from the burning sun, and in return gave them a crown-like crest of feathers. The hoopoe in Attar does say he gained his wisdom from Solomon.
And what’s the Simorgh? It’s a creature of Zoroastrian (that is, ancient Persian) mythology, ancient and semi-divine. (It’s also normally considered to be female, but this doesn’t appear in Attar.)
You may be expecting an allegorical epic now, like Journey to the West. Well, no. It’s inspirational Sufi poetry. The Simorgh is God, as he appears to birds. Various birds express their fears and hesitations about the voyage to find God, and the hoopoe responds eloquently. Much of his discourse is in the form of parables about real or imagined figures, often designed to undermine traditional religious ideas.
Sufism is the mystical side of Islam, and so far as I can see, it’s pretty much identical to certain traditions in Christianity, and also to the bhakti movement in Hinduism. It’s all about love, you see. You are supposed not just to love God, you fall in love with him, with all the unrestrained passion of the most carnal love affair. You give up everything, he forgives everything, you live in poverty and pain in this world and simultaneously in ecstasy.
All of these traditions are a revolt against rules and doctrines and divisions and stodginess, so the first order of business is generally shock, as old ideas have to be questioned. An early parable is about the Sufi spiritual leader Sanan, who runs off to Rome and falls in love with a Christian girl. From an Islamic point of view, this is shameful and heretical, but the point, I think, is that if you don’t have that much passion, your more orthodox faith is worthless. (It all ends happily, though– the Prophet himself intervenes, and brings both the wayward leader and the girl back to the faith.)
So, there’s lots of stories of people discovering and losing great treasures, and Joseph in Egypt (a great symbol of a person of great worth despised by his peers), and kings being rebuked for their worldly splendor. There seems to be a progression: the early stories are mostly about the passion of God for us and us for God, and later chapters lay on the difficulties of the path.
Eventually– about 90% of the way through the book– the actual journey takes place, and of all the throng of birds, only thirty make it to the antechamber of the Simorgh. At this point Attar unveils the pun that perhaps led to the creation of the whole work: they see the Simorgh, but what they see is si morgh, ‘thirty birds’.
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh, and the journey’s end.
That is, more or less: they find God, but God is immanent in the world, and thus in them. As they have finally defeated the Self, all that remains in them is God, and so they see him– and disappear in him.
So, should you run out and read this? Well, it depends on your tolerance for this type of religious thought. The translators (Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis) emphasize the earthiness and variety of the parables. But honestly, you’ll have more fun reading (say) The Ten Princes. The religious message is not, to put it mildly, hidden under a bushel. If you don’t think there is a God, falling in love with him probably won’t make much sense or have much appeal.
Now, if your idea of religion is that it’s all stupid rituals and oppressive rules, in service to the powers that be, then maybe you should read it to understand that there is an ecstatic and anti-authoritarian side to religion. Whatever you might think of their goals, a Sufi was someone who could thumb their nose at kings and rich men. (And if all you know about Islam is shari’a and jihads and religious fighters, Attar is a good counterweight.)
How is the poetry? I’m no great judge, but here’s a sample of the translators’ work:
A naked madman, gnawed by hunger, went
Along the road – his shivering frame was bent
Beneath the icy sleet; no house stood there
To offer shelter from the wintry air.
He saw a ruined hut and with a dash
Stood underneath its roof; a sudden crash
Rang out – a tile had fallen on his head,
And how the gaping gash it cut there bled!
He looked up at the sky and yelled, “Enough!
Why can’t you clobber me with better stuff?”
I’ve been studying some Persian, so maybe in a few months or years I’ll be able to tell you how the original sounds. But I’m not sure that the English rhymes or the pentameter add much.
Wikipedia, by the way, informs me that the poet’s name is properly ʿAṭṭār. But this is an Arabicization; there are no emphatic or pharyngeal consonants in Persian, so his name really is just Attar. It’s really a pen name, ‘perfumer’, after his profession. The old name ‘attar of roses’, for rose oil, is a cognate.