Flights of mysticism

The Speech of the Birds
August 28, 1998

With the exception of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, few masterpieces of Persian poetry have become popular with the public. But Fitzgerald was an inspired poet who took huge liberties. The result was almost a miracle, as great poetry always is, and none of his subsequent translations achieved the same felicity. But even imperfect renditions have been a source of inspiration: Goethe names his Divan after H fiz's collection of ghazals translated into German.

In recent years, thanks to the devotion of such scholars as Ann Marie Schimmel, Dick Davis and Peter Avery, other Persian classics - Rumi, Attar, H fiz - have been presented to the English-speaking public. Among them Faridu'd-Din Attar's Mantiqu't-Tair, one of the best-loved masterpieces of Persian classical poetry. A verse translation by Dick Davis (Conference of the Birds), a successful stage adaptation by Peter Brook, which toured the world, and the general interest in Sufism (Islamic mysticism) have helped its popularity.

Attar was born in 1145 in Nishapour - Khayyam's birthplace - in eastern Persia, and perished in 1221 in the general massacre during the Mongol invasion of Persia. His name means apothecary/perfumer (Attar as in "attar" of rose), but little is known of his early life. Legend has it that he was converted to Sufism when one day in the Bazaar a "mad" dervish stopped by his shop and looked intently inside. Attar asked him why he was so greedily staring and ordered him to move on: "I am lightly laden and apart from this cloak possess nothing," said the dervish, "I can soon pass from this market place I (but you) O possessor of a purse full of aromatic remedies / For the time of departure, what provision?" When Attar asked him how he would pass away, he replied "like this", and "having torn off his cloak and put it under his head he stretched down and surrendered his soul to God". Whereupon Attar, "filled with yearning for the dervish's condition, gave up his shop to the sack and became free from the market-place of this world". He became a Sufi, and devoted the rest of his life to writing 40 books, of which only half-a-dozen have survived, Mantiqu't-Tair being the most popular.

Attar took the title of his narrative poem from the Koran: "And Solomon was heir to David and he said, 'O people, we have been taught the speech of the birds"' But mantiq also means logic, and other translators have used "Conference", "Argument", "Colloquy", while Garcin de Tassy, Attar's first French translator, called it Le Langage des Oiseaux - the language of birds.

The poem is an allegory: one day the birds of the world assemble to find a king. The Hoopoe tells them that they already have a king - Simurgh, or Phoenix, who lives far away on the other side of the Qaf mountain. At first the birds are eager to set off in search of him, but as the Hoopoe explains the hazards of the journey, they try to find excuses. The Nightingale claims that he cannot part with his lover, the Rose; the Duck protests that he is incapable of surviving without water; the Parrot says that having been caged for so long he does not have the strength for such a journey; the Peacock reminds them that he was a bird of paradise from which he was exiled and now he is content to stay in his earthly paradise; the Hawk is happy with his position as the king's companion; while the Finch argues that he is too tiny for such a big enterprise; and the Partridge says that he loves his mountain and does not wish to leave it. Each of these birds symbolises a human failing - pusillanimity, vanity, selfishness, greed. The Hoopoe counters their arguments with a series of stories and anecdotes, saying that on the path of love there should be no concern for personal safety, that love is fraught with difficulty:

"Being safe and sound does not go with love I With Love comes sorrow and the heart's blood".

A lover is someone in whom "all thought of self has died". They must give up all they have to gain. The carnal self, nafs, has to be destroyed for the spiritual self to be realised, and the heart must be purified to become a mirror reflecting the beauty and majesty of the beloved. Eventually he persuades them, and a hundred thousand birds set off, with the Hoopoe as their guide - had he not been the messenger of Solomon?

The seven valleys they must cross are called "Quest", "Love", "Understanding", "Detachment", "Astonishment", and "Annihilation". They correspond to the seven stages - maqam - of the soul's journey, the Sufi's path, ending with his annihilation - fana - in the beloved. Along the way most of the birds disappear, some perish in the desert or sink in the sea, others are waylaid by the pleasures they encounter on the road, yet others forget the purpose of the journey and wander off. Of the multitude who started out only a few arrive, weary, bewildered, "fatherless and wingless", at the abode of the Simurgh. At first they are turned away, but then "a hundred curtains" are drawn aside to reveal a new world beyond, and "the Light of lights" manifests itself. Dazzled, they realise that the Simurgh is themselves: si (30) murgh (Birds).

Avery's The Speech of the Birds is the first complete translation in prose of Attar's Mantiqu't-Tair - over 4,600 lines of verse comprising 0 stories and anecdotes, each making a moral point or illustrating a Sufi example. Omitted from previous English translations, these poems are given here for the first time. More important, Avery's copious notes are as long as, if not longer than, the text itself, and they are invaluable - a real mini-encyclopaedia of mysticism in general and of Sufism in particular, which enhances the understanding and pleasure of the poetry. His knowledge of Persian language and culture is vast, and by making the appropriate connections between the great mystics of Islam and Christianity he proves, as a Christian saint has said, that "All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country". I only wish that he had been less scrupulous in his literalness and eschewed some archaic words and turns-of-phrase that hamper the flow of the poetry. Still, his book stands beside R. A. Nicholson's translation of and commentary on Rumi's Mathnavi and J. A. Boyle's rendering of Attar's The Book of God as essential reading for those interested in Sufism and in poetry.

Shusha Guppy is a writer and London editor, Paris Review.

The Speech of the Birds: Concerning Migration to the Real: The Mantiqu't-Tair

Author - Faridu'd-Din Attar
ISBN - 0 946621 69 1
Publisher - Islamic Texts Society
Price - £45.00
Pages - 560
Translator - Peter Avery

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