Sholeh Wolpe

The Power of Unity in Diversity

by Sholeh Wolpé   

“Let us celebrate this Persian Heritage Month with a gift from ancient Iran: the life-changing wisdom of Iran’s 12th century Iranian Sufi mystic poet, Attar’s The Conference of the Birds

Truth must be listened to by the heart and the soul, 
not by what is fabricated from water and clay. 
The battle between the ego and the heart flares hotter by the hour.  
Wail, mourn, and lament the sorrow it brings. 

In recent decades the advent of internet and social media has enabled people of various cultures and creeds to band together in response to the gathering darkness in our world— the rampant violence instigated and nourished by political greed, religious extremism and unabashed bigotry. This united response is a sign of humanity’s awakening to an unprecedented milestone which the 12th century Iranian Sufi mystic poet, Attar, calls the power of “unity in diversity.” 

Attar, Sheikh Farīd-Ud-Dīn, (CE 1145–1220), was born in Nishapur (Nīšāpūr), a city in the northeast region of Iran. His masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, is a magnificent allegorical tale about our human struggle, both physical and spiritual. It recounts the perilous journey of the world’s birds to the faraway peaks of Mount Qaf— a mythical mountain that wraps around the earth— in search of their sovereign, the Great Simorgh. The Hoopoe is elected to lead them through the perilous journey. At the start, each bird presents an elaborate excuse for not being able to make the journey, but the wise Hoopoe addresses their many hesitations, and fears, then describes in great detail and beautiful language, seven valleys they must cross in order to reach the court of the Great Simorgh. The story is peppered with beguiling parables that not only instruct, but also entertain. 

We are the birds in the story. All of us have our own ideas and ideals, our own fears and anxieties, as we hold on to our own version of the truth. Like the birds of this story, we may take flight together, but the journey itself will be different for each of us. 

Attar tells us that truth is not static, and that we each tread a path according to our own capacity. It evolves as we evolve. Those who are trapped within their own dogma, clinging to hardened beliefs or faith, are deprived of the journey toward the unfathomable Divine, the Beloved, which Attar likens to a great ocean that does not turn away any soul. He says some arrive at its shores as pure drops of water; they enter, are absorbed, and become one with it. Others arrive as pebbles, trapped inside themselves, egos intact. They too enter the welcoming ocean, but they sink to its depths and remain there forever knowing only themselves, never the ocean. He writes:

A Wayfarer sees the Beloved in everything,
looks at a pagan temple 
and sees only the Beloved’s home,
hears and listens to the Almighty’s words 
and finds strength only through that Great One.

If you see the Beloved in everything, 
you’ll know nothing but the Beloved.
You are in the Beloved, 
from the Beloved, 
with the Beloved,
of the Beloved,
and outside the Beloved, too. 

If you don’t lose yourself 
in the ocean of unity, 
even if you are a descendant of Adam,
you are not truly human. 

There is an invisible sun
hidden inside us all.
The day will come when the veil falls away
and that sun is revealed and shines,
and in its resplendent light
all virtues and corruption vanish.

So long as you exist, 
there will be good and evil,
but when you lose yourself, 
they will vanish too. 

If you choose to dwell in your own self, 
the good and evil will remain with you too, 
and the road will stretch out even farther.

In The Conference of the Birds Attar brings into a coherent whole all the philosophy—both religious and non-religious, spiritual and non-spiritual—that had existed in ancient Persia and India for hundreds of years, into a form that is not only beautiful, but entertaining. 

Before this seminal work, all the books of poetry or treatises of philosophy were instructive: Learn this; Heed that! But in The Conference of the Birds, it is as if Attar pulls his chair close and says: Let me tell you a story about inflated self-regard. How about the donkey who farted? He then tells you a very funny story that teaches you about the dangers of an over-blown ego—a story that instructs through entertainment. Indeed, this form of storytelling was invented by Attar, and later learned and copied by other greats, such as Sufi mystic poet Rumi who considered Attar his master, calling him “the spirit” and himself “its shadow.”  

Rumi wrote,

Attar traveled through all the seven cities of love
                                                 While I am only at the bend of the first alley.

To this day, the beauty and wisdom of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds remains unsurpassed. This book may not be able to change the world, but its magic is an antidote to the bitterest ego-concocted poison of our times: extremism. 

 It is time for a positive shift towards a more enlightened language and perspective. Today, in our peace marches, rallies, protests, books, articles and essays, we have adopted the language of war. “Battle the Darkness”, “Fight Against Terrorism”, and “War Against Drugs” are a few examples of this dreadful vocabulary. Attar cautions us against employing the “weapon” of the enemy and reminds us that it is not the world that needs saving, rather it is we who are in dire need of rescue—from the clutches of our own ego, that “cyclone of calamities.” 

Both worlds, the upper and the lower, are but a drop of water, neither here nor there. When that droplet first appears, it is replete with reflections. But even if all those reflections were of iron, the hardest of metals, you could still shatter them back into water drops. Whatever has its foundation in water, be it fire, is nothing but illusion. When water itself is not stable, how can you use it as a firm foundation?

Darkness is not to be battled, rather we must walk into it, hearts aflame, because light does not fight darkness, it dissipates it.

Don’t you know life only lasts the wink of an eye,
that you’re born to die and ride the wind as dust?

Whether you are a sinner or a saint,
you’re just a drop of water mixed with dust.

Have you ever seen a drop of water battle the sea?
When the end comes, even if
you were the monarch of the world,
nothing you could say or do 
would save you from rejoining the earth.

I spent three years re-creating his masterpiece into accessible poetic English. To do so, I had to cut into the bone and marrow of it.  What I learned changed my inner life. I share this moving work with you not only as a poet and lover of poetry, but also as a soul who repeatedly attempts to walk the path toward the Beloved. I am always on the move, and it is this movement that Attar encourages. He warns us not to dry up in our own puddle, but instead to persevere in our journey toward the Divine. That Great Ocean is eternal. It is patient. It waits for us all. May we all arrive at its shores as drops of pure water.  That’s when we can join it, become it, and finally comprehend it.”


Sholeh Wolpé is an Iranian-American poet, playwright and librettist. Her most recent book, Abacus of Loss: A Memoir in Verse, was hailed by Colorado Review as a book that “examines the masks of patriarchy in powerful metaphor and narrative.” Wolpé’s literary work number over 12 collections of poetry, translations, and anthologies, as well as librettos for opera, oratorio and art songs, several plays, and multi-genre productions. Her translations of 12th century Sufi mystic poet, Attar, The Conference of the Birds, and 20th century Iranian rebel poet Forugh Farrokhzad, Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, have established Wolpé as a celebrated re-creator of Persian poetry into English. Wolpé has lived in Iran, Trinidad, and the United Kingdom and is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of California, Irvine. 


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