Cover of An Australian Conference of the Birds

Sorry, this book is temporarily out of print.

An Australian Conference of the Birds
Anne Fairbairn

a masterpiece of poetry and one of the great poems of Australian English
Paul Knobel, Southerly

a delight, modest in presentation, rich in insight and spiritual wisdom, and exquisite in its use of language
A.H. Johns, The Canberra Times
Down to
Book Description
Book Sample

Fairbairn biography Next title
Previous title
Home page
All publications

Book Description

At the invitation of her Middle Eastern cousin the Hoopoe Bird, the Spinifex Pigeon calls together a gathering of Australian birds. They will go on a journey. They will confront the world and themselves. They will seek the path of the aware and will find the truth.

Faird un-Din Attar
s Manteq at-Tair (The Conference of the Birds) is a glittering work of the Sufi tradition, the mystical school that is at the heart of Islam.

Anne Fairbairn has flawlessly blended Middle Eastern and Australian imagery and counsciousness in this classical tale of discovery. Our poets and shared deserts come together with a natural ease in her narrative.

An Australian Conference of the Birds is a delightful tribute to Attar
s famous poem. It is a story for young and old.

ISBN 1876044012
Published 1995
35 pgs

An Australian Conference of the Birds book sample

Back to top


An Australian Conference of the Birds

Back to top


“A Pot Full of Ancient Mysteries”: An Australian Version of Attar’s Conference of the Birds.

Harry Aveling

      The thirteenth century Sufi text, The Conference of the Birds, describes a journey undertaken by a group of birds to find their king. It is an allegorical presentation of the mystical quest. The teachings are extensively illustrated by parables. An Australian Conference of the Birds, written in 1995 by Australian poet Anne Fairbairn, is a tribute to Attar’s poem, using Australian birds within an Australian bush setting. The poem also includes a quest for the King of the Birds. There are some important differences in the spirituality of the two poems. The Australian version places a lesser emphasis on the place of ethical behaviour in the life of the aspirant. There is little concern for the stages of growth in the development of mystical awareness. Successful completion of the quest itself is an individual physical achievement.


Anne Fairbairn, An Australian Conference of the Birds, Attar, The Conference of the Birds, Australian spirituality



    Farid ud-Din Attar is considered one of the greatest Persian Sufi poets of the twelfth and thirteenth century literary renaissance, second only to Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273). To this day, his book, Mantiq-al tayr (The Conference of the Birds), is highly valued because of “the skill and passion with which he translates his own yearning into poetic energy”, the complexity of his exposition, his sincerity and devotion to the path, the moving simplicity of his style, and the practical nature of the guidance he has provided to generations of seekers (Fatemeh Keshavarz 2006: 124). As Walter Benjamin (1923) has noted, texts have their own ongoing lives. Through translation into other languages and paraphrase in their own, they are retold, recontextualised and reimagined in ways that are shaped by the languages, cultures, literary conventions and the worldviews into which they are later absorbed, despite the apparent stability of being a written piece of literature. In this article, I would like to consider some of the ways in which The Conference of the Birds is transformed in a recent poem written in homage to Attar, An Australian Conference of the Birds, by poet Anne Fairbairn (born 1928).

The Conference of the Birds

    Most of what is known about the author of The Conference of the Birds is legend. “Farid ud-Din” and “Attar” were both pennames of Abu Hamed Mohammad b. Abi Bakr Ebrahim. The first signified “the Unique One of the Faith”; the second that he was a pharmacist – or a perfume maker. Perhaps he was even considered fragrant himself because of his piety. He spent most of his life at Nishapur, in the northeast region of Iran. Estimates of the year of his birth vary from 1120 to 1157 CE; his death is placed sometime between 1193 and 1235 CE. As the colophon to The Conference of the Birds states that the book was finished in 1177 CE, an earlier date of birth may be more appropriate and the later date for his death unlikely. He was probably educated at the theological school attached to the shrine of Imam Reza at Mashad, and may have then travelled to Egypt, Damascus, Mecca, Turkestan and India. Whether he was an initiated Sufi, and if so, to which order he belonged, remain matters of considerable debate. One version of a story says that:

A dervish was gazing at Attar’s shop, his eyes filled with tears, while letting out a sigh. “What are you gazing at? It would have been better for you to continue going your own way,” said the apothecary. “My load does not weigh much,” the dervish said. “”I do not have much else but these old clothes, but what are you doing with these bags and barrels filled with valuable medications? I can quickly leave this bazaar whenever I please, but how will you ever pass away?” Attar impatiently replied: “The same way you will!” Wherepon the dervish put his begging bowl on the ground, laid his head upon it, uttered the word “God” and promptly died. Attar immediately closed his shop and began his search for Sufi masters (From Nafahat al-uns by Jami, 1414-1492, retold by Este’lami 2006: 57, Ailar and Amin, no date: 53, Afkham and Davis, 2011: xi, and Wolpe 2017: 12).

      The greatest Sufi poet of all, Maulana Rumi (1207-1273 CE), whom Attar is supposed to have blessed while Rumi was still a small child, suggests that Attar had no teacher and was initiated in a dream by the spirit of the martyred saint Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE). Late in his life, he was tried for heresy and banished for a while, his property looted and his books burned. He wrote at least eight books (and perhaps as many as 40), the most famous being Mantiq-al tayr (The Conference of the Birds). Attar was, perhaps, killed in Nishapur by passing Mongol forces on their way to Baghdad. There is a story to this too:
When the Mongols invaded Nishapur, they took Attar prisoner. Someone came along and offered to buy Attar’s release, but Attar advised the Mongol against selling him for silver. The Mongol, perhaps hoping for gold, refused the sale. Soon, another buyer offered gold. Again, Attar advised his captor not to sell. The soldier, driven by greed, refused that sale as well. Finally, along came a man with a donkey who, seeing Attar in chains, offered the soldier a sack of straw in exchange for the elderly poet’s life. Attar then urged the soldier to accept the offer, saying: “Now you have been offered what I am truly worth.”  Upon hearing this, the angry soldier picked up his sword and beheaded Attar .... (Wolpe, 2017: 13)
      The Conference of the Birds describes a quest by a group of birds to find Simurgh, their King, under the leadership of a hoopoe bird (also known as a green peafowl or lapwing). The Simurgh is an Iranian mythopoetic bird that has existed in Persian literature since the time of Zoroaster. He is a repesentative of the Divine, both within and beyond the created order, and of death and rebirth. The Simurgh is often identified with the phoenix. (Tabriztchi, 2003: 440-1). The Conference describes Simurgh as being born from a feather of “that Great Beauty” over China (Wolpe, 2017: 46), and having “an indescribable Majesty/ beyond all reason, past comprehension,/ … like a myriad suns,/ multiple moons, and more” (Wolpe, 2017: 324). He is, of course, God, and the search for the Simurgh is the search for the Divine.

    Wolpe (2017) divides The Conference of the Birds into the following sections:
(1) The Prologue (lines 1-616), which is separate from the main text and includes:  the praise of God, Abu Bakr and Usman, the second and third of the “rightly guided Caliphs”; praise of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law; other figures, including Bilal, an Ethiopian freed slave, and Rabi’ah, one of the most important women mystics of Islam.i
(2) The birds of the world gather (617-681). Besides the Hoopoe, Attar names twelve other types of bird, some local, sime exotic, including the ringdove, the parrot, the partridge, the hawk and the goldfinch.
(3) The birds confer and make excuses not to go (682-1163). These excuses include the faults of infatuation, religious delusion, frivolous attachments, avarice, pride, ambition, misguided longing, materialism, false humility and a few others,
(4) The birds prepare for the journey (lines 1164-1601).
(5) The birds almost begin the journey (1602-1743).  They first elect a leader.
(6) The birds complain and boast (1744-2232). Their further faults include weakness, sinfulness, ambivalence, ego, pride, greed, and grandiosity.
(7) The birds voice their fears (2233-2484), which are based on the loss of love, and of death,and bad luck.
(8) The birds ask about the Beloved (2485-3245). The answers relate to positive virtues such as obedience and steadfastness, sacrifice, zeal and perseverance, justice and fidelity, audacity, true happiness, authentic and constant love and devotion; and a few negative qualities, such as egotism and faultfinding.
(9) The seven valleys (3246-4158), namely the valleys of the quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, wonderment, and finally, the valley of poverty and annihilation, which mark stages on the mystic journey. The verses consider in detail the psychological and spiritual experiences that belong to each of these stages in the spiritual journey.
(10) The journey of the birds  (4159-4482). In just twenty lines, the birds arrive at the Simurgh’s door. They are admitted, initially rejected, encounter the Great Simurgh, and eventually return from Annihilation. Having found themselves – as the image of God – their own personal attributes are obliterated. Only God exists. Significantly the story that comes next is that of the “blasphemer” Hallaj, who cried out “I am the Truth” as he was being executed.
(11) The epilogue (4483-4724),ii which deals with Attar himself and the nature of True Knowledge.
      A briefer, and extremely paradoxical form of the spiritual journey is graphically presented in Afkham and Davis’ translation:
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have been slain.
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task. (1185-1191)
The way begins in love. It leads to material and inner poverty. This in turn leads to “blasphemy” and “faith”, the state of the mystic beyond language and orthodox doctrines, who must overcome physical suffering and the constraints of the ego. It is a state that literal minded persons find hard to comprehend. Al-Hallaj was cruely executed for declaring: “I am the Truth”. Junayd (830-910) fared somewhat better by establishing the “sober” school of Sufism that relied on logic to defend its practitioners.

      The quest provides the main theme of the book. However, far greater attention is given to the emotions of the birds and their moral qualities than to any activity undertaken by them. The poem can be conceptualised as operating on two levels. There are the dialogues between the hoopoe and the other birds. Each bird has its own virtues and vices and needs to learn how to strengthen its character in order to be ready for the journey. And secondly, what the above summary does not indicate, each set of moral instructions forms a frame for an extensive series of more or less related parables (hikayat). The tales describe a wide range of figures, including famous and unknown Sufis, caliphs, prophets and other persons in the Abrahamic religions, historical persons, fictional characters, and more (Tavakoli 2014). The parables tell, for example, of a sheikh who goes to live in a wine tavern, a merchant in love with his maidservant, the Almighty reprimanding Moses, a hungry dervish reprimanding God, Rabi’a’s exclusion from the Ka’abah in Mecca because she is menstruating, an old woman seeking happiness by bidding for an attractive young slave she can never afford … there is no order or apparent end to the succession of tales. The parables are vivid and highly entertaining. As Sholeh Wolpe says: “The Conference of the Birds is delightfully packed with lively banter, pathos, clever hyperbole, cheeky humor, poetic imagination, and surprise… It is told with warmth in an accessible style”. These parables are not simply intended to instruct; “they are also meant to be enjoyed” (Wolpe, 2017: 23).

      When the quest is over, the birds are admitted to the king’s court and meet the Great Simorgh:
They were startled.
They were amazed
and still more astonished
as they advanced.
They saw how they themselves
Were the Great Simorgh,
All along, Simorgh was in fact,
Si, thirty, morgh, birds …
There were thirty birds and in Persian “Simurgh” means exactly that, thirty birds. The shocking truth is that “Simorgh was them, and they were Simorgh.” (Wolpe 2017: 331). God is the only true reality; everything else is a reflection of Him. The birds do not become Him, they are formed by Him from the beginning.

An Australian Conference of the Birds

      As Anne Fairbairn herself tells it (Fairbairn and Ghazi al-Gosaibi 1989), she made an impulsive stop over in Damascus on her way to London in 1980, “during a particularly stressful period in [her] life”. At a dinner party, she was profoundly moved to hear Dr Hussam al-Khatibe, a university teacher of Arabic Studies, recite poems by the Syrian poet Adonis, the Palestinian Fadwa Tuqan, and the classical Yemeni Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairi. As a consequence, she committed herself to building “a bridge of poems between Australia and the Arab world”, returning in 1982 with books from the Australia Council’s Literature Board to help Dr Hussam develop a special issue of his literary magazine Al-Adab Al-Ajnabiyya.
      In 1986, she visited Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in connection with another project, namely compiling a volume of Arabic poetry with parallel text in English. As she explains in her Introduction to the book, Dr Ghazi al-Gosaibi, a poet and Saudi Arabian ambassador to Bahrain, provided her with literal English “cribs” of the poems he had selected for the anthology, and she initially set about to translate them with the assistance of four Arabic speakers in Sydney. Becoming frustrated at her lack of success in producing genuine poetry on the basis of literal word by word translations, she eventually turned to “trans-creation” – recreating the poems by feeling free “to make the creative changes necessary to capture, as far as possible, ‘the essence and charm of the original’iii.” The most difficult decision she had to make was to “maintain the feeling of discipline” by “foreshortening” the meaning to keep the metre. The volume was published in 1989 as Feathers and the Horison, A selection of modern poetry from across the Arab world.
      Fairbairn has subsequently made at least twenty visits to Middle Eastern countries to speak on Australian poetry and art (see, for example, Fairbairn 1986). For her work on Feathers and the Horison, she received the Gibran International Award of the Australian-Arab Heritage League in 1988. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the same year for her “service to Australian literature as a poet and to international relations, particularly between Australia and the Middle East, through translations of poetry and cultural exchanges” (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, No S 242, 8 June 1988).iv
      Her familiarity with Arabic and Persian literature prepared her to write An Australian Conference of the Birds. Attar’s Conference of the Birds consists of 4300 to 4600 rhyming couplets, each line of ten or eleven syllables; the Australian text consists of a mere 3000 words with only an occasional rhyme. It was published in 1995 and is “dedicated to the memory of Farid ud-Din Attar.” It is not a translation, or transcreation, of Attar’s poem but transfers that book’s basic structure and outlook to the Southern continent.v In an aticle on translations of Attar’s work in the West, Ailar Moghaddam Jahangiri and Amin Karimnia (no date) have described An Australian Conference of the Birds as a “(recasting) of Attar’s masterpiece in a contemporary Australian context”, so as to “grant it some more understandable backdrop”. The quest for Simurgh remains as a central theme but Fairbairn completely omits the parables that Attar used. This leads Jahangiri and Karimnia to comment that the absence of the subsidiary anecdotes “causes Fairbairn’s poetry – on the one hand – to get fully shipshaped into the English language to be only based on the Pantheistic motif, and – on the other – to not have the tendency to get so close as Attar’s to the justified expression of Mysticism”. They describe Fairbairn’s use of rhythmical language as making the poem “more familiarly similar to everyday spoken English”

      An Australian Conference of the Birds begins with an opening invocation to the hoopoe bird. There are at least three previous models for the translation of Attar’s Conference of the Birds. The first English translation was made by Edward Fitzgerald in 1857 (see Shackle 2006: 170-175); it covers about a fifth of the whole poem. Fairbairn has expressed a liking for it (Fairbairn n.d). Fitzgerald  writes:
Once on a time from all the Circles seven
Between the steadfast Earth and rolling Heaven
THE BIRDS, of all Note, Plumage, and Degree,
That float in Air, and roost upon the Tree;
And they that from the Waters snatch their Meat,
And they that scour the Desert with long Feet;
Birds of all Natures, known or not to Man,
Flock'd from all Quarters into full Divan,
On no less solemn business than to find
Or choose, a Sultan Khalif of their kind,
For whom, if never theirs, or lost, they pined.
There is also a prose translation by C.S. Nott (1914), based on a previous French translation, which begins:
WELCOME, O Hoopoe! You who were a guide to King Solomon and the true -messenger of the valley, who had the good fortune to go to the borders of the Kingdom of Sheba. Your warbling speech with Solomon was delightful; being his companion you obtained a crown of glory. You must put in fetters the demon, the tempter, and having done this will enter the palace of Solomon.
The third translation, by Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi (1984), returns to heroic couplets, “a form associated largely with the eighteenth century” but, in their opinion, entirely suitable for this kind of work (Davis and Afkham 1984: 23). Thus:
Dear hoopoe, welcome! You will be our guide;
It was on you King Solomon relied
To carry secret messages between
His court and distant Sheba’s lovely queen … (page 29)
      However, Fairbairn followed none of these predecessors. She wrote in the natural speaking style that she had developed in her own poetry, with an occasional rhyme at unpredictable intervals. Her version begins:
Through-shadow-drifting veils of time and distance,
Attar’s Hoopoe, Messenger of the Way,
called to her Southern counterpart one day
to arrange a Conference of Australian birds … (page 1)
The Spinifex Pigeon responds to her counterpart’s call in an English that suggests an underlying Arabic voice, some of which the general reader will understand, some not:
“O Hoopoe Bird, you call me down the years,
you who have passed across an abyss of fears
by a bridge much finer than a human hair,
beset by terror. As you say, only
those birds who peck away their souls to know
the highest love, can find Tariqat.
Help us, O Hoopoe, for on your beak is etched
The blessed word Bismillah for all to see … (1-2)

      The language contains a certain mystery. In the Notes, but not in the text, “tariqat” is explained as meaning ‘The Way’ – “The Way of God, the Way of the Universal Law; for God is the source, centre and goal of all things in heaven and earth”.  “Bismillah” means “In the Name of God” but there is no explanation of why the word should be on the bird’s beak. The source of the metaphor of the bridge, “much finer than a human hair”, is not highlighted. “As- Sirat” passes over hell and is also characterised as being “sharper than a sword and hotter than fire”. All must pass over the bridge: only the virtuous can escape falling off it.  The bridge is described in a hadith (a traditional story about the life of the Prophet Muhammad) and is common knowledge for Muslims. The mysteries are cxotic but not intended to form too great an obstacle for the non-Muslim reader. The story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba is reasonably well known to non-Muslim readers, but the role of the bird in bringing the Queen to Solomon is only  told in the Koran (27.25-44). There is perhaps no need to explain the Hoopoe’s “quest/ seeking Simorgh, the Bird King, long ago”, as narratives about quests are universal.

      The Spinifex Pigeon orders the Wagtail to summon the birds (3). A total of about forty different types are mentioned in the book, although they are presented in lesser detail than Attar’s creatures – a few lines and it is time for the next creature. The first to come are the Crimson Rosella (3), Peregrine Falcon, Butterfly Quail, Nightingale (4), Lyre Bird, Noisy Miner (5), Swamp Pheasant, Turtle Dove, Satin Bower Bird, Crow (6), White Cockatoo and Emu (7). Only the hoopoe, the magie, and the white cockatoo are mentioned in the Notes; the rest are dismissed as being “well known in Australia”.  Almost all of these birds are described in Part III of Fairbairn’s earlier book, Shadows of Our Dreaming: A Celebration of Early Australia (1983), set around her family’s experiences in outback New South Wales and Queensland. (A whole page is taken directly from Shadow of Our Dreaming (13, 1983:154). Gragin, described in the Notes to the Australian Conference as “an Aboriginal word for ‘a high rocky place’”, the major setting for the Conference, is “the property where my great-aunt, Grace Gordon, was born”, 154.)
      As the birds arrive, they are immediately scolded by the Pigeon for their various moral shortcomings, thus condensing Attar’s “Gathering of the Birds” and their “Excuses” into one didactic whole. But the “host of birds” are still welcome, “whatever your faults” (6). Other birds keep coming – the Cassowary, Jabiru, Brolga (9), Black Swan (11), Bell-Birds and the Silver Gull (12). The address pauses with the stirring words: “together we’ll seek salvation” (12), and a further reference is made to “The Hoopoe Bird and her noble flock who flew/ to find the Simurgh and to know the truth” (12).

      Following the pause, the narrative picks up again. The pigeon continues to address these other birds as they arrive – Ringneck Parrots, Willie-Willcocks, Mulga Parrots, Bulloaks, Smutties (13), Kookaburra, Currawong, Butcher Bird  (14), Wonga Pigeon, Tawny Frogmouth, Pink Galah, Honeyeater, Musk Lorrekeet, Pelican (15) and the Musk Duck  (16). Then there is the promise of a positive move forward in the narrative. The birds are again called upon to find “the highest Wisdom … the Simorgh” (16) and told “So now our task begins, we shall fly …” (17). They are encouraged with verses from Jami (1414-1492) and Rumi, before being given the briefest of listings of the names of the Seven Valleys, with the comment: “We must be resolute/ to achieve purification from our Nafs” (20). (The nafs are “the personality-self, the thoughts and desires of the natural man”.). In Conference of the Birds “the subsequent journey takes only 18 couplets; the Australian Conference of the Birds needs only one line: “Here in the bush we shall proceed in silence” (22).
      The narrative shifts at that point but not in the way that one might have expected. The birds decide to “present gifts to the Simorgh” (20; this is explicitely forbidden in Attar’s text, 224) and they send the Wedge-Tailed Eagle off to find “a wisp of wool” (20). The Eagle “soon returns”, bringing “a wisp of softest lamb’s wool in his beak/ He dropped it gently on the floating sun/ while circles radiated towards the birds/ drawing their spirits into the Sacred One” (21).

      The birds still go nowhere. They stand beside the billabong, where they have been from the beginning, until the Spinifex Pigeon calls on them to open their eyes (23). The inner search has ended and they can each see the Simorgh in their own reflections in the water (23). The hoopoe has already quoted Jami (1414-1492):
Essences are each a separate glass,
Through which the sun of being’s light is passed.
Each tinted fragment sparkles in the sun,
A thousand colours, yet the light is One. (18)
Now, following a verse from Sohrawardi (1155-1191), the implication of the secret teaching is revealed: “you are the Simorgh and the Simorgh, you” (23). The line is to be found in Attar’s text but in this context the consequence is an enhanced feeling of bodily vigour (“feel the new life flowing/ from the celestial ever-living Light”, 22). The further reward for cleansing the soul is that they are “joyously free” (12). In the Australian Conference of the Birds, salvation implies delight in the recognition that God physically lives and moves within you.

      The birds fly away (24); their part in the story is done. The wisp of wool is carried across Australia by the Crested Hawk (24), the Sea Eagle and the Seagull (25), past Uluru and the Kimberleys and “out to sea” (24), until it reaches Persia, where it is then carried by the Golden Eagle (26) to Nishapur (28). The Hoopoe receives the wool – carried “from Australia/ to honour our Sufi poet, symbolically” (28), and places it on Attar’s tomb (29). In the epilogue, the wool is swept away again by “a savage wind” and taken “up to spinning supernal Light upon Light” (30, also 17, referencing the Koranic verse “Light upon light, God guides to His light whom He will”, 24.35).
      The decision to present a gift to Attar extends from before the birds’ enlightenment to the end of the book. The wisp of wool is symbolic of the Sufis who, according to one account, were called Sufis because they wore coarse woollen garments (suf). (The Note adds other possibilities: “Safa means purity, Soofa means a raised seat”.) From an Australian nationalist perspective, the gift also reflects a national pride in the wool industry that harks back to the 1950s. (“Australia rides on the sheep’s back”, it used to be said.) Most importantly, this deed also has some parallels to Fairbairn’s own taking bundles of Australian literature to various Middle Eastern universities and resonates with the once crucial upper class ritual of crossing the continent on the way to visit the “old country” (England). The Australian birds both acknowledge the imperial centre, now focused around “the cerulean dome” of the master’s tomb, and relate to it as convivial colonials should, by being good mates (or cousins) and sending gifts that can also be considered “tribute” (29)vi.
      Susan McKernan has described Fairbairn’s Shadows of Our Dreaming, perhaps unkindly, as “the scrapbook of an artistically inclined daughter of the squattocracy”vii (1983). The Australian Conference of the Birds is indeed a poetic collage. The stories present a continual succession of quick cameos and rapid changes of focus, in segments of about three to ten lines long. Beside her bird collection, the passing kangaroos and koala bears, Fairbairn displays verses from the Koran (24.35, 24.41 – 49 and 67.19 –26), as well as quotations from the Sufi poets Jami, Rumi, Sohrawardi, Sa’di (1208-1291) and Hafiz (1350-1390). There is a short quotation from a twentieth-century Turkish poet, Ebrat-e Na’ini (17). Fairbairn also refers to Umar Khayyam (27), and “the Bard” for those who might recognise the brief reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (14). She quotes two verses from poems by Australian poets: “The Death of a Bird” by A. D. Hope (1907-2000) and “Extinct Birds” by Judith Wright (1915-2000), this latter extract beginning with a reference to Charles Harpur (1813-1868).
      The Australian Conference of the Birds is a positive vision of the benign power of human life and nature in Australia. (For an opposite and less glorious vision, accessible through Henry Lawson, see Millikan 1981 and Brady 1981.) When we compare it with Attar’s Conference of the Birds, there are also some striking contrasts that extend beyond place and the names of birds. The comparative brevity of the Australian text comes at a high cost, which relates particularly to the religious dimensions of the poem. Despite Fairbairn’s attempt to provide an Islamic and Arabic veneer to her poem, the two cultures, contemporary Anglo-Australian and medieval Iranian, conceptualise the individual, society, and God in vastly different ways.
      The first shift in perspective occurs with regard to the importance of the parables. In Attar, the multitude of parables serve to teach the need for a life-long ethical responsibility towards the self and others. By omitting them, Fairbairn reduces the moral dimension of the spiritual quest to being part of the inner path of self-purification that preceeds illumination and perfection (7, 12, 20).
      Secondly, in the Conference of the Birds, about a thousand lines (almost 70 pages in Sholeh Wolpe’s translation) are devoted to explaining the place of each of the seven valleys in the spiritual life. Fairbairn lists the names of the valleys, in the text and in the Notes, but does not explain them. Details of the stages of personal and communal growth are potentially irrelevant if enlightenment is an immediate process that requires no disciplined work. “Eyes closed, the birds stood beside the water,/ crossing the dreaded valleys in their minds …” (22). That is al they need to do; it is enough.
      Finally, in Attar’s poem, the riddle of the nature of Simurgh is unlocked when the hoopoe explains that“si”means “thirty”, and “murgh”, “birds”; the thirty birds were looking for the divine through themselves.  Fairbairn, perhaps wisely, does not follow this “most ingenious pun” (Schimmel 1962: 75) which otherwise seems to be accepted without question by readers of Mantiq-al Tayr. Instead of spiritual transcendence, the Australian birds discover their “soul and body’s unique reality” by meditatively gazing into the water of the billabong and seeing their own faces reflected there. This is not a gift of some external grace but one of willed inner transformation.
      It is a spontaneous physical enlightenment, an individual achievement, a Paradise outside the structures of organised religion. Each of us can meditate in our own way: “Each bird with wings outspread in living air,/ knows its own private mode of prayer”, we are told at what is almost the end of the book (29, from Koran 24.41; the more common reading is “God notes the prayers and praises of all His creatures”). To live is to feel,/ to feel is to suffer,” the hoopoe says, but “through our pain we find/ the peace of Paradise” (17, and 4). Paradise is the billabong and the places to where the birds return. The “Fall” (5) has been overcome, and the lyre-bird dances for the new Adam (5) in the restored Eden that is Australia.


    This article has sought to compare the medieval Conference of the Birds with an Australian poem that is dedicated to the memory of its author, Farid ud-Din. It suggests that the Australian Conference of the Birds provides its readers with a lively, wide-ranging approach to the Australian landscape, human existence and varied birdlife. It uses a simplified framework of an apparently Muslim spiritual search for self-knowledge, which contains words in Arabic, unexplained concepts, and the framework of Attar’s original story. In so doing, however, the text omits the major qualities of Muslim spirituality, which emphasise moral strength, personal and social integration, and a long and arduous commitment to regular religious practices. The pilgrim in Attar’s approach is a reflection of God but can never be the same as Him. The Australian Conference of the Birds, on the other hand, offers its readers a form of “salvation” (12 and 22) that is individual, immediate, physical, joyful and pantheistic. In one of his parables, Attar quotes the words of the mystic Junayd, “Tonight I have placed a large pot before you and filled it with words elucidating ancient mysteries” (Wolpe 2017: 170).  The pot is large pot and there is much to share, not all of it familiar.

Ailar Moghaddam Jahangiri and Amin Karimnia (n.d.). “Attar and the West”. In Khazar Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. No date. No volume number. Available online at:
Accessed 8 November 2017.

Attar (2017). The Conference of the Birds, trans. Sholeh Wolpe. New York: Norton.

Baxter-Tabriztchi, Gita (2003). Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds [Mantiq al-Tayr]: A Study in Sufi Psychology and Spirituality. Unpublished PhD thesis, Argosy University, San Francisco Bay Area Campus.

Benjamin, Walter (1923/1968). “The Task of the Translator”. In Illumination, trans.H. Zohn. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, pp. 69-82.

Brady. Veronica (1981). A Crucible of Prophets. Sydney: ANZEA.

Fairbairn, Anne (1983): Shadows of Our Dreaming: A celebration of early Australia. Sydney: Angus and Roberson.

Fairbairn, Anne (1986). “Anne of Arabia: At the Mirbed Poetry Festival, Iraq.” Quadrant, October, pp. 58-60.

Fairbairn, Anne (1995): An Australian Conference of the Birds. Fitzroy: Black Pepper Publishing.

Fairbairn, Anne (n.d.) “An Appreciation of and Current Concern for Sufis.” Online at Accessed 23 November 2017.

Fairbairn, Anne and Ghazi al-Gosaibi (1989): Feathers and the Horison, A selection of modern poetry from across the Arab world. Canberra; Leros Press.

Farid ud-Din Attar (1984/2011). The Conference of the Birds, trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis. London: Penguin Books. 

Farid ud-Din Attar (1971). The Conference of the Birds, trans.C.S. Nott. Berkeley: Shambala. 

Farid ud-Din Attar (1889). Bird Parliament, trans. Edward Fitzgerald. London: Macmillan. 

Fatemeh Keshavarz (2006). “Flight of the Birds: The Poetic Animating the Spiritual in Attar’s Mantiq al-tayr”. In Lewisohn amd Shackle, pp. 112-134.

Lewisohn, Leonard and Christopher Shackle, eds. (2006). Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition.London: Tauris.

McKernan, Susan (1983). “One vision of Australia’s past”. Canberra Times, 2 October, page 8.

Millikan, David (1981). The Sunburnt Soul. Sydney: Lancer.

Muhammad Este’lami (2006). “Numerology and Realities in the Study of Attar”. In Lewisohn and Shackle, pp. 57-63.

Schimmel, Annemarie (1962). As Through a Veil: Mystical Poetry in Islam.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Scully, Paul (2017). “ReConferencing the Birds”. Southerly, 76:3, pp. 38-45.

Shackle, Christopher (2006). “Representations of Attar in the West and in the East”. In Lewisohn and Shackle, pp. 165-193.

Tavakoli, Fatemeh (2014). Cultural Specification in Translation: Study of “The Conference of the Birds”, Unpublished Masters Thesis, University of Tartu.


i     The prologue is given in full in Afkham and Davis 2011.
ii     Line numbers follow Wolpe and may vary slightly for other editions
iii    As Fairbairn explains, the phrase quoted is from a letter written by Boris Pasternak to the widow of Titian Tabidze in 1957.
iv    She is also translator of A Secret Sky by the Lebanese Australian poet Wadih Sa’adeh, published by Ginninderra Press, Canberra 1997, and editor of Sunlines: An Anthology of Australian Poetry, published by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Canberra 2002.
v     Paul Scully (2017: 42) describes it as “more an hommage than a re-creation”.
vi   From October 1982 to February 1983, Fairbairn undertook an extended trip to Bahrain, Ehgpt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Qatar, with the support of the Literature Board of the Australia Council. The purpose of her trip was to lecture on Australian literature and art, and to provide books of Australian poetry (some $17,000 worth!) to universities and schools. “It was purely a cultural mission,” she is reported as saying to the Canberra Times (1 June 1983, p. 23). “I carried our creative spirit to them to pay homage to their awakening.” The “awakening (known as al-turath)” is explained in the article as “the renewed interest in creativity by the Arabs and the resurgence of affection for their culture’s poets, painters and writers.”
vii   A “squatter” is an Australian term for a large rural landholder.

Back to top

Wisdom on the Wing
An Australian Conference of the Birds
Paul Ernest Knobel
Southerly, Vol. 56, No.3, Spring 1996 (pgs 224-225)

In An Australian Conference of the Birds, the Sydney poet Anne Fairbairn has produced a masterpiece of poetry and one of the great poems of Australian English. The work is inspired by the Persian poet Attar’s Conference of the Birds, written in the twelfth century, itself a masterpiece of world literature. In Attar’s poem the birds of Persia gather to debate the meaning of existence and to search for the Simorgh, the Bird King who embodies the truth (Simorgh means thirty birds in Persian).

Attar was a Sufi. Sufism is a mystical religion based on love, connected to both Hinduism and Christianity and widely disseminated from Turkey to India and as far as Malaysia and Indonesia; Sufi works are also know in Africa, in Hausa and Swahili.

In An Australian Conference of the Birds, the setting is Australia and the birds are all Australian. Each bird gives his own view of life: ‘try to grasp eternal love’, the Peregrine Falcon says; ‘strive to avoid the shallow pools of the self (the Spinifex Pigeon); ‘forget... indulgence, and purify your soul’ (the Swamp Pheasant). Finally the birds, gathered around a billabong, look into the water and realise what they are seeking can not be found in any external action but only within themselves. The poem concludes with the Sea Eagle flying to ‘the Turquoise land’ - that is, Iran - with- a whisper of wool to place on Attar’s tomb, an allusion to the fact that the word Suf means wool and Sufis always wore woollen garments (as the notes at the end make clear).

Sufi Poetry was allegorical. What is the meaning of Anne Fairbairn’s allegory?

Clearly the work is meant as a comment on Australian society, its foibles, greed and petty vanities - and by extension other societies: ‘Your avarice is a regrettable sign of the times’ we learn from the Spinifex Pigeon, and later ‘Stop preening your feathers under the jewels of night / stop wandering aimlessly and search for the essence’. For those who know the contemporary poetry scene - especially the Sydney poetry reading scene - it ran also be read as a comment on poets and poetry (each of whom thinks she or he has produced a masterpiece every time she or he reads). Finally it seems a comment on rulers and parliamentarians: ‘A little less pride... will serve you well’. Like all great poetry this is a poem rich in wisdom: ‘be brave for life / demands it; try to stand firm but never be cruel’ the Spinifex pigeon tells us and ‘everybody / drunk or sober, thirsts for the Beloved’. ‘Our finite minds can never grasp the infinite / and wisdom is knowing we may never know’ we learn again from the same bird - perhaps the ultimate meaning of this postmodernist work in which many talk but few seem to be listening.

Hopefully An Australian Conference of the Birds will be read by adults and to Australian children for many generations (it is especially suitable for reading to small children without being specifically a children’s book). It is an enchanting work and, in a world overwhelmed by serious problems, a reminder that the main purpose of art is to give pleasure. Many Australians who do not know the names of Australian birds will learn them from it (how aptly named seems the Squatter Pigeon). The poem is being translated into Persian and translations into other languages such as Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, Bahasa Indonesia and Chinese are already on the way we are told in the introduction. Its fame seems assured. It should receive many fine illustrations in future editions showing all the Australian birds who appear in it. The present edition only shows a few.

Back to top

On a poetic flight of fancy
Ehsan Azari
Campus Review, Vol. 6, No. 33, 28 August-3 September 1996

Poet Anne Fairbairn’s recasting of a 12th-century Persian fable is a piquant mixture of Sufi mysticism and poetry in a contemporary Australian setting. The poem fuses East and West in a way that seems to dissolve the ‘otherness’ of the East.

An intimate debate among the birds opens the verse, akin to the beginning of Chaucer’s dream-poem ‘The Parliament of the Fowls’, but unlike Chaucer’s fowls, the Australian birds guided by Spinifex Pigeon hold a gathering by a billabong to discover their inner selves.

The Wagtail and his companions, Crimson Rosella, Peregrine Falcon and Butterfly Quail, bring the flock of the birds from Australia’s scorching . deserts to the billabong. While rapt in a passion by their guide’s stirring sermon, the birds agree on an inner voyage in their search for divine unity.

Many birds perish along the arduous inner journey. At the end, the surviving 30-odd birds open their eyes and see their quivering images in a mirror-like surface of the billabong. Through a revelation, they realise that the deity is none other than themselves - the core of Oriental emanationism. Then a wisp of wool, pecked from a lamb by a Crested Hawk, is ritually passed from beak to beak. A desert wind lifts the wisp to Uluru (Ayers Rock), and from there to the Iranian city of Naishapur by a Golden Eagle. There it slowly floats over the tomb of Farid ud-Din Attar, the great Sufi poet (1120-1230 AD) who wrote the Persian mystic poem ‘The Conference of the Birds’.

Why a wisp of wool? By this symbol the poet makes her offering to the Persian saint. The Arabic word sufi is derived from the word for wool, traditionally worn by Sufi adherents.

Fairbairn’s long interest in Middle East poetry is well-known, especially her remarkable editing of an anthology of Arabic poetry Feathers and Horizon. But her love of the region does not hold her back from exposing evil there. The plight of Iran today is laid out in the last lines of the poem:

[Eagle] whipped away the wisp of wool, carrying
It over sleeping Naishapur, over
Night Hawks soaring in the wild nocturnal flight,
Up to spinning supernal Light upon Light.

An Australian tone is created with laconic humour throughout, by avaricious Bower Birds, laughing Kookaburras, the Cruel Crow and the Black Swan ‘stretching its long neck, searching for signs of passing day’.

The poet’s depiction of Australian birds with a mystical context revives the anthropomorphic ethos of medieval Persian poetry. The Sufi doctrine of pleasure through pain has offered a conduit for the imagination of the poet to escape from an ‘inner wasteland’ and the tyranny of materialistic society to a dreamy world of Oriental mysticism.

To live is to feel, to feel is to suffer, through
Our pain, we find the pleasure of Paradise.

The ubiquitous sense of despair in the book connects Fairbairn to a feeling of alienation found in Judith Wright’s work, and to another Australian poet, James McAuley, who drew on ‘the voyage within’ in his poem ‘Terra Australis’.

Fairbairn’s miniature replica of the tale of Attar - the saddest of the Sufi poets - opens the gate of the rose gardens of ancient Persia for a new readership. Unlike Edward Fitzgerald, who introduced the sparkling Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam to. the English-speaking world, she brings out a deeper mystical fable, perhaps to match her own gloomy vision.

Back to top

An Australian Conference of the Birds
A.H. Johns
Five Bells, Vol. 3, No. 3, April 1996 (pgs 8-9)

[Text not yet available]

Back to top

Verse shaped by the nature of the land
An Australian Conference of the Birds
Patsy Crawford
The Mercury, 29 January 1996

Anne Fairbairn brings another, more academic perspective to the business of poetry. She has lectured at universities in the Arab world and has translated Arabic poetry into English and much of her work is translated into Arabic, Turkish and Persian.

It’s the Arabic influence she brings to An Australian Conference of the Birds, a very direct tribute to the work of Islamic poet Farid un-Din Attar whose A Conference of the Birds she describes as ‘a glittering work of the Sufi tradition.’

Fairbairn sets her poetic adventure among a gathering of Australian birds, including the spinifex pigeon who, at the invitation of her Middle Eastern cousin, the hoopoe bird, calls on them to go on a journey. It will be a journey of inner discovery and a search for truth.

The poet uses the desert common to both Australia and the Arab lands as a backdrop and her narrative blends imagery and metaphor as it takes flight.

It is a brief and pretty piece from a poet of great subtlety.

Back to top

An Australian narrative inspired by Sufi classic
A.H. Johns (academic)
The Canberra Times, 16 December 1995

This little book is a delight, modest in presentation, rich in insight and spiritual wisdom, and exquisite in its use of language.

It is a narrative poem inspired by a classic of Sufi literature in Persian, The Conference of the Birds (Mantek at-Tair) by the Persian mystic Farid ud-Din Attar (circa 1120 to circa 1193). An English rendering appeared in Penguin Classics {Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, 1984).

Attar’s poem is a long work of more than 4,000 lines. It is an allegory. The birds decide that they need a king. The Hoopoe, who in the Qur’an (Sura 27 [The Ant]:27) is Solomon’s envoy to the Queen of Sheba, is recognised as their leader. He tells them they should seek not a worldly king, but the Simorgh, a spiritual bird representing spiritual enlightenment, which, after a long and dangerous journey which will take them across seven valleys representing spiritual states, they will find within themselves.

The birds are hesitant to take up the challenge. Each makes excuses that reflect the personality assigned to it by convention.

The Nightingale is loath to abandon the rose, the Parrot is more concerned with its freedom than any spiritual quest; the Peacock longs only for the earthly paradise it once shared with Adam, and the Duck is reluctant to leave its ponds and streams. The Hoopoe answers each objection in turn, exposing the moral weakness that gives rise to it, and telling a story to drive her point home. Finally the birds set out on the long quest, and 30 of them reach their goal.

A rich mystical theology underlies the structure of the poem as it unfolds. It is multilayered in its significances. It pulses with both spiritual and worldly wisdom and shrewd psychological perceptions, and is sustained by numerous allusions to and echoes of the Qur’an.

Attar’s poem has given spiritual inspiration to millions over the centuries. Anne Fairbairn’s poem, dedicated to his memory, uses the same allegory. Attar’s Hoopoe calls to her cousin the Spinifex Pigeon ‘Through shadow-drifting veils of time and distance’ in the remote south to hold a conference of Australian birds. The Spinifex Pigeon obeys, and summons her country’s birds. They come

from the scorching deserts and sullen swamps
of this vast, forbidding land; from the seas,
rivers, relentless skies and steely trees.
With faith we shall beat our wings as one
flying in our hearts towards the Light,
seeking for our darkest sins and sorrows/with quiet resolution.

The birds arrive one by one, and Fairbairn, in describing them by delicate shifts in the rhythm of the verse and hints at onomatopoeia in the choice of an epithet, gives a three-dimensional picture of movement, colour and sound distinctive of each of them. As the Spinifex Pigeon addresses them in turn, she modulates its tones with a skilful use of speech rhythms within the pulse of the verse, as in

Your avarice
is a regrettable sign of the times,’ sighed the Pigeon,
eyeing the Bower Bird, ‘And this Crow has blood,
on his beak. I warn you, possessions and cruelty
bring no peace. Renounce your habits for love,
When you reach for the inner meaning, as Rumi
tells us,
You reach peace, marrow of existence!

Often she realises a truly Tennysonian verbal music:

Now I hear the Bell-Birds calling me
from Toma valley, to say one is flying here;
they sound like tinkling bells in a distant shrine.

Followed by a down-to-earth apothegm:

It’s always wise to listen to what1 is said,
but even wiser to know what’s left unsaid.

Into the verse, Fairbairn weaves lines of the great Persian mystics Hafiz, Jafni, Rumi and Sa’di. and with them phrases, and echoes from the Qur’an, including the ecstatic phrase of God as Light upon light (Sura 24 [Light]:35) as sustenance that carries the birds on their way and the birds reach their goal, realise and recognise within themselves the spiritual wisdom that they seek.

In gratitude, they send as a gift to Attar ‘a wisp of softest lamb’s wool’ carried by a relay of birds. Among them a Crested Hawk

who flew across our starlit heart of dust
over scrub and bony Eucalypts,
over Wattles and River Gums she soared,
above the Kimberleys and out to sea
by a Sea Eagle who flew North
high over the rhythm of rolling oceans.
winging his way through storm-inked monsoon clouds
split by fire, winds and hurricanes
to Hormuz.

At length it is passed to the Golden Eagle, who takes it to Nayshapur to Attar’s tomb. The gift has been delivered: a wisp of softest wool from the Great South Land to the great Sufi poet - and suf means wool - whose words inspired them.

A token of love and honour from Australia to one of the great spiritual traditions of humankind.

Back to top

Fairbairn biography
Home page