(From the introduction to a new translation by Sholeh Wolpe.)
Attar (1145-1220) lived and wrote in Persia. The Conference of the Birds is an allegory in verse about liberation of our divine essence from slavery to the body and the emotions. Two of Attar’s greatest admirers are Borges and Rumi. Rumi said, “Attar traveled through all the seven cities of love, while I am only at the bend of the first alley.”
The birds of the story, representing the mystics, gather and acknowledge the Great Simorgh as their King. Simorgh is a mysterious bird who dwells in Mount Qaf. “The great edifice is very near at hand; it is we who are far away.” The great and perilous journey to Qaf is led by the Hoopoe, a bird reputed by the Quran to be Solomon’s trusted messenger.
At the start, each bird presents an elaborate excuse for not being able to make the journey, but the wise Hoopoe addresses each of their many hesitations, complaints, fears and vanities. He then outlines the perils of the journey, describing the 7 valleys they must cross:
- Valley of the Quest, where the Wayfarer begins by casting aside all dogma, belief, and unbelief
- Valley of Love, where reason is abandoned for the sake of love.
- Valley of Knowledge, where worldly knowledge is revealed as without sense or application.
- Valley of Detachment, where all desires are relinquished. (There follows the vanishing of all that was perceived to be “reality”.)
- Valley of Unity, where the Wayfarer realizes that everything is connected, and that the Beloved is beyond everything, beyond even harmony, beyond unity and multiplicity, beyond eternity.
- Valley of Wonderment, where, awed by the beauty of the Beloved, the Wayfarer comes to realize that he has never known or understood anything.
- Valley of Poverty and Annihilation, where the self disappears into the universe and the Wayfarer dissolves into a realm of timelessness encompassing all past and future existence.
When the birds hear the description of these valleys, they bow their heads in despair; some die of fright on the spot. But despite these trepidations, they begin the great journey. A great many perish along the way, and only 30 remain to enter the abode of Simorgh.
In the end, the birds learn that they themselves are the Simorgh; the name “Simorgh” in Persian means “30 birds”.
Wolpe says, “My favorite image from the story emerges when we learn how the Beloved is like a great ocean that 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.”