“The birds of the world gathered from near and far.
They said: No nation is without a leader;
Why is it that we don’t have one? …
Let’s seek a sovereign without delay.”
-from Sholeh Wolpé’s translation
Some time ago, I began to forge connections in the Inayati Sufi community of the Pacific Northwest. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, and it’s fascinating to see the threads of commonality that exist between it and mystical Christianity.
It was interesting how it began – bit by bit, like dots of colour running through a beautiful prayer rug. A presentation on medieval Islamic music in 2011 which included a “whirling dervish,” Raqib Burke. An interfaith gathering at VST in 2013 where I saw Raqib again, this time with a luminous woman named Seemi Ghazi, who whirled with her four-year-old son in her arms. Finally, a clergy development day at the synod office in 2017, where I saw Seemi again, and she’d brought Raqib to help enhance her poetic rendering of the story of the birth of her daughter: an incredible, intimate encounter with Islam.
I finally introduced myself, and she invited me into further relationship, which deepened the following year when the Turkish Rifa’i sheikh Sherif Baba Çatalkaya came to visit us and Seemi encouraged me to offer music.
Since then I have forged friendships with American, Canadian, Persian, Syrian, and Turkish Sufis, and worshiped and whirled alongside them, and have been most surprised to discover that, rather than challenging my Christian faith, it has in fact deepened it immensely.
Within the first months of the pandemic, I was laid off from my second job and found myself with a lot of time on my hands, so I explored educational offerings that had shifted online and were being shared at low to no-cost. I’d previously met Omid Safi, an Iranian-American professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, a few years ago after being invited to a book launch, and took two of his online courses on Rumi and the Qur’an which introduced me to a plethora of ancient and modern Islamic mystics. It was in this garden of delights that I was introduced to Farid ud-Din Attar and his poem The Conference of the Birds.
Attar was a 12th century Persian poet born in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran. His name means “perfume-seller” and was a common title for druggists, who also worked as doctors. He was said to have received a theological education in Mashdad and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and India seeking knowledge and writing poetry. His connections to Sufism are unclear, but his work is full of Sufi themes and imagery. The poet Rumi held him in very high esteem and was clearly influenced by his work.
The Conference of the Birds is a long-form poem in Persian, composed around 1177 CE, that details an epic story of the birds of the world gathering to decide who should be their leader. Instructed by the hoopoe, wisest of the birds, they learn that they must embark on a treacherous journey to find the Great Simorgh, greatest of all birds. The story is an allegory for the soul’s search for God, which, in Sufi theology, is only possible through the destruction of the ego.
This year, I decided that I would read The Conference of the Birds as a spiritual practice throughout Lent, and offer a blog series on my reflections. I will be consulting with both the Dick Davis/Afkham Darbandi translation, and the more recent Sholeh Wolpé translation.
Some questions I imagine you might have:
Why this text? I’m always excited to share literature with others, particularly works that are less known in the West. But mostly I want to because the movement of the story – from seeking a sovereign to making a hard journey of self-discovery and personal sacrifice – seemed an appropriate theme for the season of Lent. I was especially interested in how my own Christian lens might inform my thoughts on the text.
Why this translation? There is a vast array of questionable translations of Sufi literature, particularly of giants like Rumi and Hafez. Translations must be chosen carefully. The first one I picked was by Sholeh Wolpé, an Iranian-American poet, playwright, and literary translator. I was happy to find someone who shared a homeland with Attar, had a background in poetry, and was a woman of colour. In her notes, she describes translation as “a scalpel. It cuts to reveal and to heal.” Although the original poem is composed in rhyming couplets, highly popular in 12th century Persian poetry, she does not keep to that structure as she feels transferring that format into English would sacrifice much of the meaning and beauty of the work.
Later, though, I reached out to my friend and teacher Omid Safi, posting a note on his Facebook wall to ask which translation and commentary I should choose. He had several suggestions but called my attention to the work of Dick Davis, whom he called “a supremely gifted” translator. Dick Davis, with his wife Afkham Darbandi, put out their own translation in 1984, which preserves the rhyming couplet structure. It comes across as a lot more ‘formal’ than Wolpé’s translation, but I appreciate having two different ones to compare.
Enough of this for now. Let’s stop endlessly sniffing the wine and drink it. Open your wings, and begin the journey with me. Let’s read The Conference of the Birds together!
Updates to the series will go live Thursdays during Lent.