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A sublime allegory on the quest for human happiness
on June 10, 1998
A truly exceptional book - so captivating in translation it must have been exceptional in the original Persian. Attar's verse focusses on a flock of birds who decide they are in need of a King - but who should it be? Thus begins their quest for a leader and it becomes clear each bird represents a human archetype, personifying vices but also acting as the dramatic vehicle for the inner struggles which each human being experiences in life.
The Hoopoe (the legendary bird resident at the Court of King Solomon) is their guide and by turns admonishes, encourages and advises each bird on its quest to reach the Ultimate, the King of the Birds, known as the Simorgh. It is clear that each 'bird' in Attar's verse could be a (indeed, is, in allegory) a person, but what is the Simorgh? And how does one reach the Simorgh? Such is the question which the birds (and the reader) endeavour to find answers to as the poem progresses.
In beautiful allegorical verse, Attar leads the reader to the conclusion that eternal happiness and can only be achieved through Divine Love, but that the latter can only be attained through sacrifice of the Self (ie the ego) and steadfastness. The road is hard and long, the Hoopoe never ceases to remind his companions, but the reward represents the zenith of human experience.
The Hoopoe is obviously a Sufi Master (surprise, surprise so was Attar himself) and the birds are the members of the Sufi Order, but let not the taxonomy of Islamic mysticism be a barrier to reading this poem. Anyone at home with English verse register and the ability to appreciate the abstract, the intangible, the uncertain and the unseen must surely warm to this book.