Shahnameh: The Great Poem That Came Out of Persia


May 15, 2008


Books | History | Iran


My earliest memories of the Shahnameh, the greatest work ever written in the Persian language, belong to my childhood in Iran. I and other girls in my elementary school recited verses of the epic poem, rounding out our chests and puffing our cheeks in our best effort to strike the pose of peacocks brimming with pride. Too young to grasp the book’s literary merits, we nonetheless understood it to be the deed to our nation’s glory.

If it were possible, Iranians would raise the Shahnameh on flagpoles and swear allegiance to it. No other book captures so much of Iran’s history while revealing the innermost workings of the Iranian sensibility and preoccupations. The Shahnameh has attained its revered status not only because of the truths it speaks but also because it embodies something that goes unspoken: the struggle of Iranians to maintain their identity.

Some 300 years after the Arab invasion of Persia in the seventh century, with Arabic growing in influence, Abolqasem Ferdowsi vowed to create a text that would ensure the continuity of Persian heritage and bolster the language. It was a task that, upon its triumphant conclusion, inspired this famous line attributed to the poet: “Thirty years of suffering and I have resurrected Persianness through my Persian.”

Despite its cherished status among Iranians, the Shahnameh remains unfamiliar to much of the rest of the world. A brief primer: Weaving together mythical and historical elements, drawing on oral and written sources, the Shahnameh runs to more than 50,000 lines, in rhymed couplets. It begins with the beginnings: when the first king of the world, living in the mountains and wearing leopard skin, set out to civilize his subjects. Ferdowsi chronicles Persia’s royal dynasties, and the exploits of their kings and noble warriors — all the while trying to entertain the audience.

This is not as daunting as it might sound. Indeed, the Shahnameh is more likely to strike a familiar chord with Westerners than do many Iranian artistic exports — which tend to be celebrated here only if they are exotic and mysterious. European and American urbanites who cannot fathom life without a BlackBerry may embrace Sufi poetry and its advocacy of a life of poverty and seclusion. Or they may feel entranced by Iranian cinema and its overtly naïve depictions of villagers who, despite their abject conditions, never fail to greet each other and grow two boxes of geraniums by their front doors.


By Abolqasem Ferdowsi

The poet Ferdowsi, by contrast, is hardly exotic; he is the sort of masterly raconteur that Westerners will immediately recognize. In the veins of his characters beat the passions known by humankind: envy, fear, anger and, above all, love. The valiant and tragic heroes of the Shahnameh bring Homer’s Hector to mind; its foolish kings are reminiscent of Lear; its women, not in the least oppressed or subservient, conjure Cleopatra. And the poem’s amorous tales resonate across the centuries, as when the beautiful Tahmineh pleads with the heroic Rostam: “If you desire me, I am yours, and none / Shall see or hear of me this day on; / Desire destroys my mind, I long to bear / Within my woman’s womb your son and heir.”

A poet himself, Dick Davis has boldly executed an abridged translation of the Shahnameh in prose. Mr. Davis, who has dedicated himself to the study of the Shahnameh for many years, retells the majority of its stories — but instead of working in verse, Mr. Davis gives us a Shahnameh in prose, dotted with poetic interludes. Those readers who know the Shahnameh in its original form will surely miss the stunning beauty of its language and the intoxicating poetic rhythms that, for generations, have enabled even the uneducated to commit its verse to memory.

This largely prose version of the Shahnameh is daring — and not entirely successful. Now Ferdowsi appears as a rushed narrator who has little control over the pace of his story. Another problem: The repetitions that, in verse, appear to be an element of Ferdowsi’s rhetorical style seem, in prose, like simple redundancies. But the most noticeable change in this rendering of the Shahnameh is the absence of Ferdowsi himself. His asides and comments on the story he is telling serve as the unifying backbone of the entire work, yet his voice is much reduced here.

These shortcomings stem not from heedlessness but from hard choices that Mr. Davis has had to make. In a luminous earlier work on the Shahnameh, “Epic and Sedition,” Mr. Davis proved himself keenly aware of the book’s inner workings, assessing previously neglected themes within the Shahnameh in a way that has earned him a place among the leading scholars of Ferdowsi in the Western world. Clearly, Mr. Davis decided that, even though it meant taking liberties with the classic form of the Shahnameh, shortening it and rendering the story in prose would bring Ferdowsi’s work to a wider English-speaking audience than it has ever previously enjoyed in more literal translations.

Given the troubles over Iran’s nuclear program roiling the world today, the Shahnameh is a more compelling document than ever: Nothing makes knowing a people more urgent than the threat of war with them. In the growing thicket of experts, pundits and books on Iran, most of which do nothing but obscure the country and its inhabitants, the Shahnameh, explosive with nonatomic adventures, is the quickest, most reliable route to knowing the heart of Iran — perhaps not of its rulers, but certainly of its people.

Ms. Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the memoir “Journey From the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran” (Crown, 2004).

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