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This review is taken from PN Review 243, Volume 45 Number 1, September - October 2018.

Cover of The Conference of the Birds translated by Sholeh Wolpe
Ian PopleThe Same River Twice

Attar, The Conference of the Birds translated by Sholeh Wolpe (W.W. Norton) £20
The Conference of the Birds is one of those world masterpieces which many may well have heard of but few have read.  Written by Attar, Sheikh Farid-Ud-Din who was born in the twelfth century in north-eastern Iran, it is, as Sholeh Wolpe claims in her introduction, ‘an allegorical poem about our human struggle, both physical and spiritual’, more especially ‘the soul’s search for meaning’.  Probably the most familiar translation is the one by Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis published by Penguin in 1984. However, a brief glimpse at Amazon suggests that there are about half a dozen translations available, some of them much more recent. And Peter Brook, famously, toured a dramatisation of the text around rural villages in Africa in the eighties.

Perhaps the fact that The Conference of the Birds may remain on people’s ‘to read’ list is due to its nature. It is not a conventional narrative in the way that the Greek epics are, at least on the surface. It does not contain tales of derring-do, with great heroes and famous battles.  These might be reasons why so few translations of it have been attempted until recently; it simply has not captured the imagination. Why there are more recent translations is, possibly, down to greater familiarity and fascination with Sufism, in particular, as Sufism is manifested in the poetry of Rumi. One of the legends surrounding Attar is that he bounced the baby Rumi on his knee and predicted Rumi’s greatness. And Sholeh Wolpe may well be correct about another reason why ...

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