The Conference of the Birds by the 12th century Sufi poet ‘Attar is hands down my favorite Persian epic poem. ‘Attar’s sweeping tale relates the story of a flock of birds who, under the guidance of the hoopoe, traverse seven valleys in their quest to find the Simurgh, their “true king” who resides on the Mountain Kaf. Along the way, the birds learn lessons about understanding, love, death, and relinquishing worldly attachments, their journey analogous to the path that a Sufi seeker would take in search of spiritual union with the Divine.
A recently published adaptation of The Conference of the Birds by Czech illustrator Peter Sis beautifully renders the journey of the birds in a series of vivid paintings and highlights some of ‘Attar’s most profound prescriptives. Sis’ bold use of color corresponds to the environment of each of the seven valleys, and the beauty of ‘Attar’s original Persian verses are succinctly captured to bring the reader along on the birds’ journey. Both in ‘Attar’s original and Sis’ adaptation, my favorite stage of the birds’ journey is “The Valley of Unity.” On this stage of the journey, one of the birds expresses self-doubt and despair to the hoopoe, who offers him guidance:
“Hoopoe: Why aren’t you asleep, tiny
bird? We all need our rest.
Tiny Bird: I’m never sure of myself. One day I’m confident and the next day I’m uncertain. One day I despair, the next day I soar. I’m weak, I’m frail. I just…never…fit.
Hoopoe: Everyone has ups and downs, little bird. Fly…clean your heart.”
Whether or not you’ve read The Conference of the Birds in its entirety, Peter Sis’ gorgeous adaptation is definitely worth adding to the bookshelf. As an illustrated work, it is a brilliant showcase for Sis’ talent as a visual artist. Like the manuscript illustrators in the courts of Persian dynasties centuries ago, Sis too finds inspiration and illustrative potential in the colorful language of ‘Attar’s epic, bringing this 12th century poem boldly into the 21st.