Culture & Society

Farid-ud-Din Attar Epic And The Modern Quest For Belonging

Drawing from Attar's allegory, I reflect on the parallels between the birds' quest and my own search for identity, connection, and understanding in a world that often feels isolating.

Farid-ud-Din Attar Epic And The Modern Quest For Belonging
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Finding myself again stalled in front of the bookcase, I remembered The Conference of the Birds, a 12th century epic written by Persian poet Farid-ud-Din Attar I stumbled across in recent months. Funny and moving by turn, the thing I perhaps most love this poem for is the playful final reveal, which seems to suggest that we may already have some of the very things we set out looking for in life, if only we knew how to discover them. 

To give some background, a plucky and enthused Hoopoe bird spends a good deal of the book trying to persuade a gang of friends to accompany him on a quest to find the Simorgh; a mythical creature whom he seems to think well worth a perilous and arduous journey to encounter. There’s some initial interest, but on learning that the road is likely to be both long and difficult, most of his companions make their excuses and fall away. A remaining thirty, however, set out to brave the road together. 

The allegorical framework of the poem is as follows: the birds of the world gather together to seek a king. They are told by the hoopoe that they have a king – the Simorgh – but that he lives far away and the journey to him is hazardous. The birds are at first enthusiastic to begin their search, but when they realize how difficult the journey will be they start to make excuses. The nightingale, for example, cannot leave his beloved; the hawk is satisfied with his position at court waiting on earthly kings; the finch is too afraid even to set out, and so on. The hoopoe counters each of their excuses with anecdotes which show how their desires and fears are mistaken. The group flies a little way, formally adopts the hoopoe as its leader, and then decides to ask a series of questions about the Way before proceeding. These questions are also answered by illustrative anecdotes. The last question is about the length of the journey, and in answer the hoopoe describes the seven valleys of the Way. The journey itself is quickly dealt with and the birds arrive at the court of the Simorgh. At first, they are turned back; but they are finally admitted and find that the Simorgh they have sought is none other than themselves. The moment depends on a pun – only thirty birds (morgh) are left at the end of the Way, and the small morghs meet the Simorgh, the goal of their quest. The hoopoe in Attar’s poem is presented as the birds’ guide and leader; he is therefore the equivalent of a sheikh leading a group of religious adepts, or would-be adepts, along their path. His relation to the other birds is also Attar’s relation to his audience: he expounds the doctrine they wish to hear and admonishes them to act on it.

Attar very frequently gives the impression of merging his personality with that of the hoopoe; this is aided in Persian by the absence of punctuation, in particular quotation marks; a translator has to choose whether the hoopoe or the author is speaking, whereas Attar need not make this decision. Though the stories are ostensibly told by the hoopoe to birds they are in reality told by Attar to men, and the admonitions in them are almost always addressed to humanity, Most of the poem is organized around the hoopoe’s answers to different birds’ objections to the journey or questions about it. At the beginning the birds are identified by their species  and they make excuses, according to their kind, for not going on the journey. Once the journey has begun the birds ask questions about its course, and here the analogy is much more that of a beginner on the spiritual path asking his sheikh about the trials he is likely to encounter. Each section (except for the opening and closing pages) therefore begins with a bird questioning the hoopoe (or arguing with him) and continues with the hoopoe’s answer. Each answer usually contains two or three stories which illustrate the particular point the hoopoe is making; the stories are linked together by admonition and commentary.

To give some background, a plucky and enthused Hoopoe bird spends a good deal of the book trying to persuade a gang of friends to accompany him on a quest to find the Simorgh; a mythical creature whom he seems to think well worth a perilous and arduous journey to encounter. There’s some initial interest, but on learning that the road is likely to be both long and difficult, most of his companions make their excuses and fall away. A remaining thirty, however, set out to brave the road together. 

How much you thought you knew and saw; but you 

Now know that all you trusted was untrue. 

Though you traversed the Valley’s depths and fought 

With all the dangers that the journey brought, 

The journey was in Me, the deeds were Mine – 

You slept secure in being’s inmost shrine. 

And since you came as thirty birds, you see 

The Simorgh, Truth’s last flawless jewel, the light 

In which you will be lost to mortal sight 

Dispersed to nothingness until once more 

You find me in the selves you were before.’ 

Then, as they listened to the Simorgh’s words, 

A trembling dissolution filled the birds – 

The substance of their being was undone, 

And they were lost like shade before the sun; 

Neither the pilgrims nor their guide remained. 

The Simorgh ceased to speak, and silenced reigned.   

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