An excerpt from The Conference of the Birds by Attar, 12th Century Sufi Mystic Poet. Translated by Sholeh Wolpé.
Published by W. W. Norton & Company in March 2017. LINK
Attar, also referred to as Attar of Nishapur or Farid ud-Din Attar, was born in northeastern Iran around 1145 CE and died a violent death in the massacre inflicted by Genghis Khan and the Mongol army on the city of Nishapur in 1220.
About this translation, Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, writes: “In this beautiful rendering of Attar’s Conference of the Birds, Sholeh Wolpé, herself a passionate poet, transports us to another time, another language & another world, while reminding us of how enduring and universal great works of imagination are, how they create spaces within which we not only acknowledge and appreciate our differences but also recognize & celebrate our shared humanity. Only a true poet could achieve such a feat.”
The Conference of the Birds (Manteq al-Tayr) is an allegorical epic poem about our human struggle, both physical and spiritual. It is peppered with beguiling parables. 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.”
The story goes as follows: The birds of the world, representing the mystics, gather and acknowledge the Great Simorgh as their King. Simorgh is a mysterious bird who dwells in Mount Qaf, a mythical mountain that wraps around the world. The great and perilous journey is led by the Hoopoe. 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. Their journey takes them across seven valleys—the valley of the Quest, of Love, of Knowledge, Detachment, Unity, Wonderment, and Poverty and Annihilation. Upon reaching their destination, the surviving birds find realize they themselves are the Simorgh, just as water drops are part of the great ocean.
Here is a bird who speaks about its love of gold. The hoopoe answers the greedy bird, then follows it with a parable.
A Bird Speaks of Its Love of Gold
I love gold. It’s like the kernel of the nut.
If I don’t have that yellow nugget at the core, as flowers do,
then how can I laugh, blissful as a bloom?
I love the world and its gold too.
Sadly, this love has made me pretentious and sly.
The Hoopoe Answers the Gold-Loving Bird
You are stuck on the face of the world like an ant,
distracted by outer forms,
blind as a bat both night and day;
inner meanings are lost to your heart.
Seek the essence;
don’t be bamboozled by externals.
What’s essence? The core of everything.
What are outer forms? Nothing.
Gold is merely metal with a nice hue—
you’re seduced by its color like a child.
If gold diverts you from your Beloved,
then it is an idol; throw it aside and be on guard.
Gold is of course fitting in some places,
like the birth control rings for donkeys,
which are always made with gold.
No one benefits from your gold,
least of all yourself.
If you give a kernel of gold to a poor man,
you’ll first make him feel in your debt,
then regret having given it away.
You’re so greedy that offering money
to any poor fellow will not gratify you,
so you give it to a famous cause
to bring notoriety to yourself.
Your friendships are based on gold;
your so-called security comes from gold.
Each first of the month you count your profit,
but what is “profit” when you pay for everything
with your soul?
You spend your dear sweet life
to make a nickel from your shop.
You give everything for nothing
and put your heart into it too.
Your neck’s in a noose, and one day fate
will pull the stool out from under you.
Know that in this world each adornment you hang
on yourself, will one day burst into ash.
When you drown in the material world,
your faith drowns too.
Your faith won’t be able to rescue you.
You seek comfort in your work,
and when you don’t find it,
restlessness overwhelms your soul.
Spill your wealth in all four directions
for the Holy Book says: You are not righteous until
you give away everything you hold dear.
You cannot even keep your own life,
what makes you think you can hold on
to money, property, this or that?
Abandon everything, even your life if you must.
If your bed is nothing but a ragged rug,
even that lies between you and the Path.
Burn that mat if you wish to walk the Road.
How much longer will you be a hypocrite?
Do you think you can fool the Almighty?
If you can’t surrender this coarse rug
for fear of having nothing,
how will you fare with fine carpets?
Don’t fall prey to the sound of your own sigh,
for it has the sound of “I” in the middle.
Rid your ego of the “I,” for it lives twice in narcissism.
Parable of the Greedy Student
A student hid a bit of gold from his master. The master knew but said nothing and let his student keep it. Then, one day the master and the student went on a journey. They came upon a dark valley where the road split in two. The student began to worry about his gold and wanted to take the safest road. Sooner or later gold always speaks for you, and so the student asked: “Master, which of the two roads in this dark valley is the right one to take?”
His master replied: “Get rid of the wrong you are hiding, and either of these two roads will be the right path.”
Make gold your mate,
and you’ll scare even the devil away,
because for a mere morsel,
you’ll split hairs like a sly cheat.
Your arms will be weighed down
yet you’ll be a person of no weight.
When it comes to faith and belief,
you’ll limp like a lame ass.
You’ll become a sultan of cheating,
an ignoramus in faith.
Waylaid and robbed by gold,
you’ll fall trapped in its well.
Joseph, stay away from such deep wells.
Don’t draw a breath; its foul air will choke you.
Sholeh Wolpé was born in Iran and has lived in Trinidad, U.K. and the United States. About her poems, The Poetry Foundation writes, “Wolpé’s concise, unflinching, and often wry free verse explores violence, culture, and gender.” A recipient of the 2014 PEN/Heim, 2013 Midwest Book Award, 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation prize, among others, her publications include four collections of poetry, a play, three books of translations, and three anthologies. Wolpé ’s modern translation of The Conference of the Birds (W.W. Norton) by the 12th century Iranian mystic poet, Attar, has been hailed by Reza Aslan as “timeless as the masterpiece itself.” Wolpé’s writings have been translated into eleven languages. She is based in Los Angeles. Learn more at www.sholehwolpe.com.
© Sholeh Wolpé