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Understanding Iran: Reading The Shahnameh in New York

Understanding the Shahnameh opens the door to understanding the foundation of the modern Iranian psyche. It doesn’t tell us everything, but it’s a good place to start.

When Iran’s newly elected president gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this year, he ushered in the post-Ahmadinejad era with some lines of medieval Persian poetry: “Be relentless in striving for the cause of Good / Bring the spring, you must, / Banish the winter, you should.” While it might have appeared a somewhat sentimental gesture, Hassan Rouhani’s use of verse actually constituted a shrewd message that not only called on his adversaries on the world stage for mercy and prudence in the push for war on his country, but it also harkened to thousands of years of tradition in order to demonstrate his legitimacy to constituents back at home.

The lines he recited are the words of Kay Khosrow, a revered king and character in the Shahnameh, the Persian-speaking world’s national epic written around 1010 A.D. by nobleman Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi. The poet, commonly known as Ferdowsi, composed the 60,000 lines — more than make up the Iliad and Odyssey combined — of three thousand years of Iranian history and mythology at a time when the ways of Arab-led invaders posed an overwhelming threat to the region’s traditional language and culture.

Scholars credit Ferdowsi’s masterpiece with the preservation not only of Iranian culture, but of the Persian language itself. Today, modern Persian bears heavy influences from the Arabic language, just as English has taken on may French words for historical reasons. But just as most Americans know only the French they learned from Pepé Le Pew, most Iranians speak very little Arabic and don’t identify with Arab culture. As a result, scholars say, modern Iranians, unlike the Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians and others whose ancestors faced Islamic conquest in the seventh century, have retained their identity as Persian, not Arab.

One of those scholars is Ahmad Sadri, an Iranian professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois who recently wrote a modern English translation of the Shahnameh. Sadri’s intentionally layman-friendly text accompanies visual artist Hamid Rahmanian’s unique digital illustration of the stories. The idea to do a new, modern Shahnameh originated with Rahmanian, who spent over three years creating illustrations to accompany all 500 pages of Sadri’s lines. In recent interviews, Sadri and Rahmanian both said they intended their version of the epic to introduce Western audiences to Near Eastern storytelling culture.

Maybe, Rahmanian suggested, deeper cultural and artistic understanding between Americans and Iranians would help both sides to lay down arms and embrace each other’s likeness. “We have more in common than not,” he said.

The Shahnameh, which means “Book of Kings” in Persian, is a versified compendium of stories based in the oral tradition of what is now Iran and the regions formerly part of the Persian Empire, much like the Odyssey or Southeast Asia’s Ramayana. Among the Persian epic’s stories are four central tragedies and three love stories, all of which would ring a bell with Western readers. The knight Zal, for instance, courts the beautiful Rudabeh by climbing her long tresses of hair to accompany her in her tower — millennia before the brothers Grimm popularized the story of Rapunzel in 1812. Their son, Rostam, is the archetypal hero with superhuman strength, the Persian Hercules, and shares the Greek hero’s unsavory mistake of killing his own offspring.

In a media world where the portrayal of Iran — by the nuclear crisis, clerical fanaticism and an oppressed youth population — polarizes that Near Eastern country and the West, Rahmanian and Sadri wanted to counter with a more contextualized understanding of the region. The Shahnameh, in all its vintage grandeur, explains a lot about the Iranian perspective, even after all these years.

For somewhat elusive linguistic reasons, the epic’s thousand-year-old language has remained intelligible to contemporary Persian speakers, unlike comparable works in the English-speaking cannon. Every American knows Shakespeare, but English has changed enough since the Bard’s time that his verses are not immediately understood by the casual reader. On the other hand, Ferdowsi’s lines from the Early Middle Ages are dialectically indistinct from what modern Iranians read and write every day. As a result, its stories, too, have kept their relevance to the society in a way that’s unfamiliar to Westerners. “In Iran, people refer to characters of the Shahnameh sometimes as an example of what is happening in their current affairs,” Rahmanian said.

It is so immensely important to Iranian heritage and identity that it continues to play a central role in the society’s political culture, including discussion of the nuclear issue.

Rouhan’s reference to Shah Khosrow in his UNGA speech was one instance. In another, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif placed a copy of Rahmanian and Sadri’s Shahnameh beside the Iranian flag in the background of a YouTube address he gave on the eve of the nuclear talks in November. “It was good product placement for us,” Sadri joked.

But the truth is that his and Rahmanian’s project follows a long line of tradition in Iranian political society: rulers throughout the centuries have commissioned illustrated copies of the book and, moreso in modern times, cited characters and lines of poetry in blandishment to their people. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s predecessor as president, used this tactic, but it sometimes backfired when protesters compared themselves in turn to some of the epic’s martyrs.

Understanding the Shahnameh opens the door to understanding the foundation of the modern Iranian psyche. Its stories are Indo-European in origin and therefore will be recognizable to Western readers of the epic, whether they pick up Sadri and Rahmanian’s version or an early manuscript. But the real value of reading Ferdowsi in the West is the view it gives on the foundation of the Iranian conscious and conscience.

“There are lessons in Shahnameh about who we are as a nation and there are others about what is good behavior,” Sadri said. “We have to do the right thing; we shouldn’t be deceived by the comforts of life; we have to follow duty, and not just beauty.”

That’s certainly not a perspective in the mainstream analysis of Iranian motives. But it’s worth considering.

Julie Ershadi is a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. She blogs at

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