'Heart' Of Iranian Identity Reimagined For A New Generation Shahnameh is the Persian Odyssey, with ancient legends and myths put into verse. A new English language version brings the 1,000-year-old text into the modern age, with ornate recompositions of Persian miniature paintings.

'Heart' Of Iranian Identity Reimagined For A New Generation

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.


LYDEN: A thousand years ago, a Persian poet named Ferdowsi of Tous obtained a royal commission to put the ancient legends and myths of Iran into a book of verse. He called this epic the "Shahnameh" or "Epic of the Persian Kings." It took Ferdowsi over three decades and is comprised of 60,000 couplets. That's twice the length of "The Iliad" and "Odyssey" combined.

Author Azar Nafisi, who wrote the memoir "Reading Lolita in Tehran," says the importance of this foundational myth epic to Iranians can't really be overstated.

AZAR NAFISI: And my father always told me that this country's very ancient, and so it has been invaded and changed so many times. He said what makes us Iranian, what gives us an identity is our poetry, and "Shahnameh" is at the heart of it. He said if people want to know what Iranian identity is, they have to read "Shahnameh."


LYDEN: Now comes a new, entirely English, gloriously illustrated edition of the "Shahnameh" with alluring stories of the kings' dynasties.

HAMID RAHMANIAN: Yeah, it's, you know, there's four tragedies, there is three beautiful love stories, there is endless battles between nations. This is like, you know, "Game of Thrones."

LYDEN: The brain trust behind this new effort is Hamid Rahmanian, a filmmaker and graphic artist who lives in Brooklyn. His 600-page book includes a fresh English translation of the text, framed by Rahmanian's ornate recompositions of Persian miniature paintings, the kinds of small, detailed paintings that were collected by the wealthy in medieval times for private albums. But this Shahnameh edition is like a monk's gilt-edged tome for the digital age with linked dynastic stories of fabled kings, queens, knights and magical beings. For Hamid Rahmanian, it was a labor of love.

RAHMANIAN: I spent over 10,000 hours in the course of three and a half years. I literally locked myself in my studio. I detached from the society to make sure I finished this. And also, you know, you have to understand, you, the way I built this book, I didn't draw anything from scratch.

LYDEN: Hamid Rahmanian scoured websites for Persian and Mogul depictions of court life, some from Shahnameh texts, ranging from the 14th to the 19th centuries. He would then scan, cut, recompose and retouch the images. Many of his pages have well over 100 elements, especially the riveting battle scenes in which you can practically hear the whistling arrows of the archers, the neighing of the horses.


LYDEN: Others tell of the dreams of the heroes or depict love scenes. First, an image had to appeal to him.

RAHMANIAN: And then based on that, I go find to my books some visual elements, which is not necessarily from "Shahnameh" - it's from different stories or just sporadic folios - and pick, one by one, sometimes like a head. You see the ear from one place, the face from another place, the headbands from another place, the feather on the - I mean, that's how we put together to become one human being.

LYDEN: If a character had a face, he'd keep the face, working to stay true to stories. In this new edition, his collaborator and translator from the Persian to the English was Ahmad Sadri, a professor at Lake Forest College. Sadri was persuaded not only by the artwork but his own childhood memory from Iran when he was 7.

AHMAD SADRI: It was a lazy afternoon, and I had strolled out of the family friend's house. And I and my twin brother, at that early age, we came across a public reciter of "Shahnameh" - we called them (foreign language spoken). This tradition of publicly reciting the "Shahnameh" is still alive in Iran. And this character, this guy, was walking around with a little cane, and he was telling the story of Rostam and Sohrab.

LYDEN: Rostam and Sohrab are the main warrior heroes who come to life in the "Shahnameh." Rostam lives for 400 years, Sohrab is his son. But writer Azar Nafisi says it's Rostam's mother who was her childhood heroine, even her role model, a woman called Rudaba. The story of Rudaba and her star-crossed lover Zal is very like the story of Romeo and Juliet.


NAFISI: And oh, my God, Jacki, there is a scene where, you know, Rudaba is in her castle from the window, and they have Zal climb up the window to come to her, and they live a night of debauchery together, you know?


NAFISI: They drink, and they make love and they swear eternal love. And everybody says: No, no, no, but they finally, going through a lot of trials and tribulations, they get married.

LYDEN: The "Shahnameh" is seductive and alluring. Many Iranians are even today named for characters in this epic, which is credited with preserving the Persian language. And the boldness of the women, indeed, constitutes the tension Iranians live within even now. But back to the "Shahnameh."

NAFISI: Not only Iran has an amazing history of feminism - beginning with 19th century - but look at how Iranian women were portrayed through the mind of a man, actually, a thousand years ago.

LYDEN: Illustrator Hamid Rahmanian, also born in Iran, wants Westerners to become as familiar with his childhood epic as they are with "The Iliad" and "Odyssey."

RAHMANIAN: The thing is I look at myself as a vessel to create this book. And the artists in old days also look at themselves as a vessel, that the divinity comes within them and then create these pages.

LYDEN: He drew from the inspiration behind the original Persian miniatures, whose popularity reached their peak in the 17th century in the Persian Empire. The paintings were methodically constructed by teams of court artists who took their work as sacred.

RAHMANIAN: Most of these pages you see in the "Shahnameh" is actually composed by many artists. Not a single person would make the whole page. One person does the color; one person does the paint, the drawing; one person does the greeting. That's why most of these painting don't have signatures because they're works of many people.

LYDEN: I asked translator Ahmad Sadri to choose a passage to read. He had to rhyme the work as Ferdowsi did. In the chapter, a tragedy of errors, Rostam unwittingly kills his own son in battle, a reverse of the Oedipus story. I asked Sadri to first read Ferdowsi to us in the original Persian.

SADRI: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: And here's the English.

SADRI: The tale of Sohrab brings tears to one's eyes, and a tender heart is enraged at Rostam, who was most reckless and unwise.

LYDEN: Iranians have been reading Shahnameh in good times and bad, using the epic to bind them together in the chaotic political life that is today's Iran. But if the Shahnameh is refreshment and oasis, the hope by these collaborators is that we will all draw from its glorious pages a tale of moral heroes who struggle against their own foibles to do the right thing. These aren't merely fairy tales, but stories of character, passion and perseverance in sumptuous color and detail.

You could read these "Shahnameh" tales aloud to your own children or children of all ages, just as many Iranians do 10 centuries on.


LYDEN: To see photos of the "Shahnameh," and see a video of how this edition was created, please visit our website, npr.org.


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