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'Shahnameh' and Iran: Epic Tales for Epic Times

by DANA FARAHANI in Los Angeles

21 Jun 2010 22:4015 Comments
shahnameh1.jpgNot too long ago, I decided to embark on a quest to a bygone era, in a far away place.

Like many Persians before me, I grew up on the legends in the Shahnameh: Tales of the noble King Feraydun; Rostam, the legendary warrior-hero; and his white-haired father Zal, who was abandoned as a child and reared by the magnificent bird, Simorgh. The stories were unforgettable. The language and imagery, breathtaking.

Commonly called The Book of Kings in English, the Shahnameh is Iran's national epic, written by the poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi, who first began work on it in the late 10th century CE under the Samanid Dynasty, and finished it in the 11th century CE under the Ghaznavid Dynasty.

In school, I had read the Greek masterpieces -- the Iliad and Odyssey -- but never Ferdowsi's tome, which captured the legendary and at times historical past of Persia from its inception until the Arab -- and subsequent Islamic -- conquest in the 7th century CE.

Far more proficient in English, I picked up Dick Davis's translation, and thus began my pilgrimage to that most sacred of places: the mythic pages of the Shahnameh.

I immersed myself in its fabulist tales of love and war, fathers and sons, brother against brother, and resonant characters of kings, at once noble and petty; heroes, both virtuous and flawed; villains, treacherous and all the while worthy of empathy. I was struck by the skilled storytelling and seamless progression of generations repeated centuries later in such monumental efforts as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

And while the Shahnameh explored the outward manifestation of good versus evil -- as with Feraydun's triumph over the demon king, Zahhak, and Rostam's various trials, including his defeat of the White Demon -- so it delved deeply into man's inner struggle between his better and lesser selves, as with the character of Esfandyar, a renowned hero and prince.

At the reckless behest of his father the king, Esfandyar sets out to capture Rostam and bring him to court bound in chains, thus forcing him to pay respect to the king. Esfandyar knows that Rostam is undeserving of such treatment, and that the king's bidding is motivated only by his greedy desire to secure his throne. Despite misgivings, he obeys the king's will and sets after Rostam. When the two meet, Rostam refuses to submit and even tries to talk his foe into friendship. While they share a deep mutual respect, a battle ensues between the two heroes. At the end of this tale, we fault Rostam for his pride, but it is Esfandyar who has lost his way, and ultimately his life.

In the glory of victory and pain of defeat, the Shahnameh had tender moments too, as with the star-crossed love between the warrior, Zal, and the princess, Rudabeh, that nearly brings two kingdoms clashing in battle. But a heartfelt talk between Zal's father and Rudabeh's mother helps avert bloodshed. Soon, the young lovers are happily wed, and from their union, Rostam is born.

The Shahnameh is rich in such stories and characters. Yet, at its heart, it is much more than a collection of tales.

Some believe that this book saved the conquered Persian civilization, namely its language, from the brink of oblivion. Even today, images of the Shahnameh are displayed from bookstores and bazaars to cafes and restaurants. Parents still name their children after its celebrated characters. Whether Ferdowsi spearheaded the Persian "revival" or was one of its most gifted pupils is an argument I leave to scholars and historians. But as a humble observer, I can safely say the Shahnameh was far more than a nationalistic endeavor. It was, and is, a reflection of the essence of an entire people and their almost mystical devotion to that intangible quality that makes a man, or a woman, a hero in the truest sense of the word.

To be a hero and a leader of men was not a birthright, but rather a virtue proven not only by fortitude in battle, but by fortitude in character. This quality is expressed in the Shahnameh by the word farr, which Davis defines as "a God-given glory, and inviolability, bestowed on a king, and sometimes on a great hero," and physically manifested as "a light that shone from the king's or hero's face."

Simply put, a man was fit to lead by virtue of, well, his virtue. If he had farr, he was ethically sound, but if he lost his farr, so with it his very right to rule.

I considered Iran's long history, pre and post Islam, before and after the Shahnameh. Many kings and rulers came and went. Dynasties risen from dust to dust returned. As I recalled Iranian monarchs and prime ministers, I tried to determine which were bestowed with farr and which lacked it altogether. Finally, my thoughts strayed to this very time last year, when green emerged as the color of hope...

It was the end of spring one year ago when Iranians in large numbers decided their present-day rulers had lost their farr.

The streets of Tehran were teeming with exuberant crowds, eagerly counting the days until the June 12th Presidential Election, when they would vote Mahmoud Ahmadinejad out of office and send a clear message to Iran's regime.

Even from my Los Angeles living room, the excitement was palpable as my television offered a window into the rallies far away. And when it could no longer offer fresh images, I moved on to YouTube and sorted through what seemed to be moment-by-moment uploads of one awe-inspiring clip after another.

I beamed with pride at the sight of the peaceful mobs, jubilant and youthful, demanding reform. I found myself transported to Tehran, back to those familiar streets I last saw as a little girl.

My education -- in both life and school -- taught me to be a cynic. My worldview deemed freedom a fickle luxury, granted only to those fortunate enough to be born in certain parts of the world and given particular advantages. And so, I never thought in all my life I would witness the blossoming of such a movement, one so organically birthed from that most basic of human desires: freedom.

It all felt so natural that -- for a brief moment -- it seemed inevitable, even invincible. After all, how can one stop the rain if its will is to fall?

I became hopeful that the will of a people -- like the will of the rain -- could not be denied.

But my hopes, like those of so many others, were dashed when Ahmadinejad was re-elected president of Iran. And soon, those same Tehran streets that only days before were filled with youthful joy and excitement were now clouded by tear gas.

Laughter became screams. Green became red.

As the regime systematically and forcefully cracked down on reformers and protesters, the Green Movement lost much of its fire. And what remains the government tries to extinguish with heavy-handed prison sentences and executions.

This past week was the anniversary of that disputed election. I wonder if the days to come will serve as a painful reminder that those in power, though void of farr, will continue to remain in power. Or, will they be a rallying point for the movement, a spark that will re-ignite this epic struggle for freedom?

And an epic struggle it is, one worthy of the pages of the Shahnameh, where the eternal battle between the just and the unjust wages on. Ferdowsi may have completed his work nearly a thousand years ago but it is hardly finished, its ongoing story inextricably tied to that of the land and its people. And as the tales of Iran continue to unfold, so do the unwritten chapters of the Shahnameh.

Chapters like the Qajar Dynasty, the Constitutional Revolution, the 1953 coup, the Pahlavi era, and the 1979 Revolution, each with its own set of villains. Each with its own set of heroes. Tales at once tragic and hopeful, cautionary and inspirational.

Chapters like last June's election and the birth of the Green Movement. The detestable powers that shot peaceful protesters in the streets illuminate the battle between good and evil. The chronicles provided by shaky, grainy cell phone videos showing unarmed civilians rising against their oppressors will stand the test of time. When in a thousand years a future incarnation of the Persian civilization turns to those archives -- as we once turned to the pages of the Shahnameh -- they will recall our era. And when they see the faces of the Green Movement, aglow with farr, they will know our heroes.

In that case, the Green Movement has already succeeded. Because in the end, as Rostam said before meeting Esfandyar in battle, "Victory favors the just."

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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I enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

Ahvaz / June 22, 2010 12:08 AM

A poetic and moving piece that adds vibrant texture and historical context to a place little deeply understand. My thanks to the author for her insight and her mesmerizing narrative voice.

HF / June 22, 2010 12:16 AM

I enjoyed reading this article. Great job.

ZF / June 22, 2010 6:48 AM

what a fantastic piece.

tonyk / June 22, 2010 7:36 AM


marjan kaykavoosi / June 22, 2010 4:18 PM

Great job on this... Totally enjoyed reading. Sad to here about all the troubles though.

Bradley / June 22, 2010 9:49 PM

Beautiful narrative, thanks Dana Jan!

farib / June 22, 2010 9:51 PM

dear dana iam so proug ofyou it is so beautiful!Iinvitedall generatiob reed this ARETICLE

farial / June 23, 2010 1:10 AM

As a fellow appreciator of Shahnameh I salute you. :)
Please also note that there are efforts to introduce the Shahnemeh to a much wider audience by featuring these great stories in a graphic novel format. For more info go to: http://www.theshahnameh.com

cameron / June 23, 2010 5:25 AM

So extremely lovely. It's like a soothing balm on a torn & hurt Persian soul (in exile). Thank you.

Ghorbati / June 24, 2010 2:14 AM

Fantastic piece. Heartfelt. Brought tears to my eyes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Asghar Taragheh / June 26, 2010 5:51 AM

Wow! Thank you for touching my heart right where it needs to be touched! Your article evoked in me feelings that I couldn't have put in words as well as you have so beautifully done. Thank you!

Shirin / June 27, 2010 1:01 AM

interesting take on the whole thing. I enjoyed reading it.

pouya / June 27, 2010 10:53 AM

They never had any FARR to start with. These are forces of AHRIMAN and they thrive on DARKNESS not LIGHT. What frightens them the most is Light of TRUTH. Islamic Republic was always the regime of Corruption and Hypocrisy. The regime of Ahriman by Ahriman and for Ahriman!

Maziar Irani / July 6, 2010 2:44 AM

Dear Mr. Farahani,
Are you or were you at all involved with Mr. Saeed
Ghaem-maghami's collossal audio-Shahnameh project?
The reason I ask is that when he had started this project I had bought some of his first tapes. I understand that he produced some 12 tapes altogether. Are these on CD now? Where can one order them?
With best regards
Nader Hakimi

Nader Hakimi / December 27, 2010 1:18 PM