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Abolqasem Ferdowsi: The Poet Who Rescued Iran

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Abolqasem Ferdowsi: The Poet Who Rescued Iran

Abolqasem Ferdowsi: The Poet Who Rescued Iran

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Americans trying to make sense of Iran could learn from the country's ancient poets; that's especially true of an epic poet who told stories of kings and wars. He's sometimes called Iran's Homer, though an Iranian might say Homer was the Western world's Ferdowsi.

MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep paid his respects at the poet's tomb.

STEVE INSKEEP: Ferdowsi is buried in the land that his greatest heroes walked. He lies within sight of the mountains of northeastern Iran, a short distance from Afghanistan, on the edge of central Asia. You walk down stairs to a basement room. Below the ground, in a dimly-lit space, tourists place their fingers on his flat tombstone.

Unidentified Man #1 (Interpreter): It's a custom in Iran and all Muslim countries.

INSKEEP: Our interpreter does it too. Sculptures line the walls of this room, depicting characters of Abolqasem Ferdowsi. He finished the Shahnameh, the book of kings, more than 1,000 years ago. The poem mixes the myths and history of Persian rulers and the warriors who sustained them. It looks back on days when the Persian Empire was so vast that its leader was called the king of the world.

A balladeer stands before a sculpture and recites Ferdowsi's words…

Unidentified Man #2 (Balladeer): (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: …describing how the book's greatest hero blinds a rival warrior. Outside the stone building young women pose for a picture. They're college students shrouded in black, except their smiling faces.

Ms. FATIMA HAJIZUDEH(ph) (Visitor): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Fatima Hajizudeh says we're here to make connections with our past. Somewhere in front of her an old man plucks a kind of two-stringed guitar. Behind her, the white stone building over Ferdowsi's tomb shines in the sun. The building is a rectangle, suggesting a coffin. It's decorated by the relief carving of a human being with wings. Beneath it, our interpreter reads calligraphy etched in stone, the opening words of Ferdowsi's masterpiece.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: In the name of God who gave life and knowledge, Ferdowsi writes, the god of galaxies and the circling skies, there was a book from ancient times full of stories.

Do you have a copy of the Shahnameh in the house?

Mr. SAEED LAYLAZ (Journalist): More than one, more than one for sure.

INSKEEP: We posed that question hundreds of miles from Ferdowsi's tomb, but we could've asked it and gotten a similar answer almost anywhere in Iran. We were visiting the home of Saeed Laylaz, a journalist in Tehran.

Mr. LAYLAZ: For a country like Iran, for example, in which has been dominant power in the world for more than 1,000 years, it is absolutely difficult to forget it.

INSKEEP: Ferdowsi wrote after the Persian's dominance, in a time of decline, the last great Persian empire had been conquered by the Arabs who brought Islam. Yet Ferdowsi insisted on writing of Persian heroes in the Persian language. Iranians today think of Ferdowsi as the man who preserved their culture.

Mr. LAYLAZ: This is - Ferdowsi is mentioning about nostalgia of great Iran again. He is like any other Iranian at the moment. Because of this he is alive yet.

INSKEEP: And he remained alive even after Iran's 1979 revolution. In Tehran, thousands of cars still pass his statue in Ferdowsi Square.

Mr. LAYLAZ: Even Islamic revolution couldn't be able to destroy his poems. They tried in the first years of revolution, but they didn't be successful. And they accepted him now. Ferdowsi's poems are very famous. You know, even now when I'm talking about Ferdowsi I'm excited.

INSKEEP: Saeed Laylaz says Iranians live always with the knowledge of a past that's glorious but gone.

(Soundbite of door shutting)

INSKEEP: He gets up to show us one of his copies of the Shahnameh, and the volume opens to the story of its most famous character.

Did it just fall open to the story of Rostam?

Mr. LAYLAZ: Rostam, yes.

INSKEEP: It just fell open to that page? Is that because it's been read many times?

Mr. LAYLAZ: Yes. This is Rostam.

INSKEEP: Rostam is an ancient warrior who encounters a son he's never met.

Mr. LAYLAZ: And his father asks him, what are you doing? For whom you are looking for? Hmm? But Sohrab, the son, doesn't answer properly.

INSKEEP: Excuse me, this is a story of two people who should've just talked to one another and then did not communicate?

Mr. LAYLAZ: There is no communication.

INSKEEP: Which is how Rostam comes to kill his own son on the battlefield. That lack of communication caused by pride immediately gets this Iranian writer talking about his country's relationship with the United States.

Mr. LAYLAZ: This is a very interesting story about Rostam and Sohrab, his son.

INSKEEP: An ancient story that easily comes up in Iranian's modern lives.

(Soundbite of singing)

INSKEEP: To make a Western comparison to Ferdowsi's role in Iranian life, you'd have to imagine going to a health club and finding people working on the Stairmaster while hearing Shakespeare set to music. That is roughly what happens here at a traditional Iranian gym.

It's called a zyrfanez(ph), or house of strength. A statue of the warrior Rostam looms above the door.

(Soundbite of singing)

INSKEEP: Men of all ages come here, though tonight it's boys aged five to 11. They're in a kind of wrestling pit, jumping and shouting on the mat.

(Soundbite of drumming)

INSKEEP: They move to the verses of the Shahnameh. They run about the center of a room that's more of a temple than a gym. It feels taller than it is wide. In this room the boys try ancient exercises developed to train men for war. Their coach…

(Soundbite of drumming)

Unidentified Man #3 (Coach): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Your turn, Mohammed, he says - is the father of the singer, who's an 11-year-old boy.

(Soundbite of singing)

INSKEEP: His music reverberates in an eight-sided room. Mosaic tiles and mirrors cover the walls. The 11-year-old will tell us later that he loves the tragic story of Rostam.

(Soundbite of singing)

INSKEEP: That jingling you hear is the sound of heavy chains attached to a metal bow. The kids swing them over their heads - an exercise to strengthen the muscles for archery. Later, two children wrestle. The boy behind the drums sings more of the glorious mistakes and losses of war. The children turn and leap like the ancient heroes of their imaginations.

(Soundbite of singing)

MONTAGNE: You can see photos of the poet's tomb plus read an essay on his epic poem at Later this week, Steve profiles Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This is NPR News.

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