There was once a young and handsome man named Zahhak, son of the king of a faraway land called Merdas. One day, the brave and ambitious Zahhak was approached by Ahriman (Satan) in the form of a counsellor, who advised him to kill his father and become king. Zahhak followed the advice of Satan, possibly with the complicity of his own mother, and became the king of his father’s realm. Iblis (another name for Satan) then took the form of a cook and, every day, prepared Zahhak a feast of delicious meat, eventually turning the king carnivorous. Curious and grateful for this wonderful cook, Zahhak allowed him to ask for any favour he desired. Iblis said that all he wanted to do was kiss Zahhak’s shoulders. Zahhak consented.
As soon as Iblis got his way, he disappeared into thin air and two monstrous serpents emerged from Zahhak’s shoulders – exactly where Iblis had kissed them. Iblis then appeared to Zahhak as a physician and told him that the only way to prevent the monsters from devouring him was to kill two young men every day and feed their brains to the serpents.
While this was unfolding, a just king named Jamshid was ruling the world from Iran, but his reign was becoming undermined by arrogance and hubris. It was at this point that Zahhak accepted the invitation of the Iranian nobility to come to their capital, which he did and from where he proceeded to rule the world with terror and tyranny.
This is one of numerous stories told in the world’s longest epic poem by a single author, the Shahnameh by Hakim Abolqasem Ferdowsi Tusi. Completed in the year 1010, the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, is an epic of many empires but stories like those of Zahhak’s make us ask whether it is a work that celebrates kings or if it is more cautionary and subversive. Or perhaps is it meant to do something else – something grander or more profound? And what do we make of the recurring murders of sons by fathers (and less often fathers by sons), and the role that mothers play? Where do we even begin with all the homo- and hetero-eroticism?
These are some of the questions that Hamid Dabashi, Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, puts forward in The Shahnameh: The Persian Epic as World Literature. As he phrases it, ‘how are we to read the Shahnameh beyond its past and lost glories’, especially today, when it is encountered mostly in English, not in the original Persian? If, like me, you are new to the Shahnameh, then some background is needed before the question’s significance becomes clear.
The Shahnameh consists of some fifty thousand couplets usually divided into three sections – the mythical, heroic, and historical. It narrates the global story of a people – referred to by its author Ferdowsi as Iranians – from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest of the Sassanian Empire in the 650s. But the land that Ferdowsi referred to as Iran is not the same as the modern nation-state – his was a term that encompassed an empire that interacted with other empires. None other than Alexander the Great has an entire story in the Shahnameh.
Ferdowsi (c. 940–1020) was born in the village of Paj near the city of Tus in the north-eastern province of Khorasan, a historical region that included parts of modern Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. We know little about Ferdowsi – we do know that he was a young husband and loving father who was grief-stricken by the death of his young son. He makes a note of this in the Shahnameh, and such personal remarks are characteristic of the epic. Ferdowsi’s patron was Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazna (r. 998–1002), a powerful warlord and the most prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire (977–1186), which stretched from Iran’s eastern front into the northern Indian subcontinent. The Ghaznavids inherited the already impressive achievements of their predecessors, the Samanids, and consolidated the Persian language and culture.
Historically, poem, poet and patron became intertwined, giving rise to folkloric traditions, including those that satirised the relationship between Ferdowsi and Sultan Mahmoud. In one story, Ferdowsi offers his finished Shahnameh to the sultan, who had initially promised him a gold coin for every line. Regretting this promise upon seeing the completed fifty thousand couplets, the sultan offers him as many coins of silver instead. A disappointed Ferdowsi replies, ‘Your Majesty, I just remembered a few additional lines, and I’d like to take my manuscript back and add them to the end of the book.’ After giving away the silver coins to the sultan’s retinue on his way out, Ferdowsi heads to a mosque where the sultan used to pray and scribbles graffiti on the wall intended for Mahmoud and other worshippers to see:
Oh you Sultan Mahmoud the world conqueror:
If you are not afraid of me be afraid of God!
For thirty years I suffered to write the Shahnameh
So that the King would appropriately reward me –
For sure the King was born to a lowly baker,
For he has given me the rewards enough to buy a loaf of bread!
If the King’s mother were of a noble descent,
I would have been richly rewarded with gold and silver.
When Sultan Mahmoud heard of this, he sent his soldiers to punish Ferdowsi, but the poet fled to Baghdad and sought refuge under the ruling caliph there. Ferdowsi eventually returned to his homeland upon receiving news of his son’s death. Sultan Mahmoud sent for Ferdowsi with the award that had initially been promised, but his delegation arrived as Ferdowsi’s coffin was being carried to his grave.
Dabashi includes all of these tantalising vignettes to demonstrate the seductive and profound power of the Shahnameh. He also takes up the cudgels against Eurocentric notions of comparative or ‘World Literature’ which have yet to shake off their imperial hangover. He challenges, for example, David Quint’s binary distinction of two trajectories in epic European poetry – the triumphant epic of the winners and the defeatist epic of the losers. Triumphalist epics include Virgil’s Aeneid, Luís de Camões’s Lusíadas, and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, while examples of defeatist epics are Lucan’s Pharsalia, Ercilla’s Araucana, and d’Aubigné’s Les tragiques. Where would the Shahnameh fit within this framework? Is it an epic of conquest or an epic of defeat? According to Dabashi, it is neither. ‘It is simply astonishing,’ he writes, ‘how radically different the Shahnameh is from both sides of this Manichaean binary Quint detects in European epics.’
Dabashi has no quarrel with European literary scholars analysing European epics. He does not even have a problem with European scholars engaging with literary works from outside the regions they are familiar with. What he criticises incandescently is the imposition of Eurocentric analytical frameworks upon non-European works which then inform the criteria of whether something can ‘rightfully’ be admitted into the canon of ‘World Literature’. How can this be truly representative of world literature if the ‘World’ is defined through Eurocentric and subconsciously (or not-so-subconsciously) imperialistic eyes? This, he argues, has prevented the Shahnameh from being appreciated widely and deeply in its own right.
Equally reductive, according to Dabashi, are the polemical, selective, and ‘overpoliticised’ readings of the poem by the different regimes that have tried to legitimise their version of the modern nation-state of Iran. Dabashi is scathing about the major millennial celebration of the Shahnameh staged by Reza Shah (r. 1925–1941), the first Pahlavi monarch, in 1934. Reza Shah Pahlavi’s militant manipulation of the Persian epic to justify his rule was all the more cynical given the situation that modern Iran was finding itself in – it had to cope with the upheavals of the constitutional revolution (1906–11), the collapse of the Qajar dynasty (1789–1924), and the chaos of recent foreign occupation.
Neither is Dabashi very forgiving of the treatment of the Shahnameh by the post-1979 Islamic Republic, which has either ignored it or used it selectively to forge a sense of Shi‘i nationalism in the aftermath of the disastrous Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Both approaches inflict ‘epistemic violence’ on the Shahnameh by tying it to a chair and beating confessions of pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian imperialism or delusions of Shi‘i grandeur out of it. The poem is more exciting and complex than that – it contains positive references to Zoroastrianism and allusions to Shi‘ism, and both add to the richness of its moral universe. In fact, Dabashi persuasively argues that the Shahnameh instantiates a paradox that is uniquely Shi‘i – it laments impending doom at the same time that it celebrates imperial victory, just as it finds nobility and grandeur in righteous defeat. The epic’s ‘traumatic unconscious’, in Dabashi’s words, locate the Shahnameh within the legacy of Shi‘i martyrdom and its models of political and spiritual power and protest.
Dabashi is therefore also disdainful of the appropriation of the Shahnameh by leftist Iranian dissidents. By converting its stories and characters into political slogans, these activists inadvertently contribute to the nationalist dismemberment of the poem. They are merely upholding the framework that Eurocentric literary critics cling to, one that divides epics between those that are ‘Western’ and those that are not. How does it even make sense to talk about the Shahnameh’s ‘Western’ or ‘Iranian’ readers, when so many of its admirers now include Iranians in exile in the West, and indeed, when it has long been discussed by European intellectuals, just never acknowledged as occupying the same literary pedestal as the accepted ‘classics’?
This book is at its strongest when Dabashi shows us what the Shahnameh means to him, a US-based Iranian academic, and his children and his life. Especially moving are the passages, such as this one, where Dabashi recounts the impact and inspiration the Shahnameh has had on his students at Columbia:
They began to read it, cover to cover, story after story, like explorers upon a distant shore. Their initial hesitation to pronounce the Persian names of heroes they had not even known before eventually yielded to a far more confident encounter with the substance of the stories. They soon began to analyze, synthesize, theorize the intricacies of the text. Before the term had ended the Shahnameh had become integral to their moral imagination, to their political consciousness, to their understanding of where in the world they were standing. They remained who they were – American, European, Asian, or African – but now Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh had entered their poetic consciousness. I began writing this book on the Shahnameh with their sense of wonder in me.
This sense of wonder grabbed me, too. The story of the despotic Zahhak, for example, reminded me of a story in one of the Malay hikayats, or royal chronicles – the legend of the Raja Bersiong (the Fanged King) in the Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa, a founding epic of my native state of Kedah. Like Zahhak, Raja Bersiong was also transformed by something his cook did. In this case, however, the cook was not an embodiment of Satan, but a nervous servant who had accidentally cut herself while preparing a vegetable dish. Raja Bersiong, however, relished the taste of blood and wanted more. He ordered more and more innocent subjects to be killed to satisfy his bloodlust, which even made him grow fangs, like a vampire. The Raja’s subjects eventually revolted and overthrew him. Filled with remorse, he fled and extracted his fangs and threw them away in a place that became known as Baling (Malay for ‘throw’).
Despite the common thread of cannibalism as a metaphor for despotism, there is little resemblance between Zahhak and Raja Bersiong. For one thing, Zahhak is eventually not overthrown by his subjects but is defeated by Fereydun, who chains him in a cave on a mountain. Still, it did make me wonder about the reception of ideas and other cultural artefacts around the world. Dabashi is right – it’s not that non-Europeans or non-Westerners need to lobby the gatekeepers of what counts as ‘World Literature’. Even if these gatekeepers did expand their definitions in some way, we would still be trying to appease them, pleading with them to let us in. Instead, the reception of different literatures needs to be utterly de-Europeanised. Would this not make better sense of the appearance of Alexander the Great in the Qur’an, the Shahnameh, and the hikayats, rather than the tired division of civilisations into the ‘West’ and ‘East’? Incidentally, there is much evidence of Persian influences on Malay culture, either directly or via Gujarat, including in concepts such as pahlawan (the warrior) and the sultanate.
Sadly, where Dabashi falters is when he tries to summarise tales from the Shahnameh later in the book, compared to his more alluring vignettes in the beginning. These summaries can get a bit laboured – the reader can only handle so many names, so many plot twists, and so many treacheries and dalliances in a short space, in addition to high-level literary analysis.
Perhaps the solution might have been to retain Dabashi’s rich analysis, but to be more selective about the excerpts shared and characters introduced to the reader. As Dabashi writes, ‘the central traumas of the Shahnameh dwell in the three stories of Rostam and Sohrab, Rostam and Esfandiar, and Seyavash and Sudabeh. These three tales bring out the most potent, visceral, and emblematic power of the Persian epic.’ This is exciting stuff, but it could have been shown by systematically focusing on the development of these three accounts, either through quotes from the poem (which were somewhat lacking), or from more character-building and back story. Perhaps with more showing rather than telling, the postcolonial criticisms raised by Dabashi need not have been so loud and so frequently stated either – I lost count of the number of times the phrase ‘epistemic violence’ was used.
These flaws are not fatal. Read this book, whether you are new to the Shahnameh or you know it already. Dabashi will delight, entertain, inform, and educate you with his erudition and passion. The last sentence of the book is rather touching:
Every time I have taught the Shahnameh in my classes, and now in this book, the summation of my thoughts and feelings about this precious book, I have thought myself blessed with the accidental privilege of having been born into Ferdowsi’s language, whispered into my ears with my mother’s lullabies, to be able to occasion one of such countless gatherings around his immortal text.