MADELEINE BRAND, host:
In Iran, people are celebrating the New Year. Nowrouz, as it's called, is an ancient tradition that dates back before the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century. In honor of the Persian New Year, here's a story about Iran's most beloved epic poem, Shahnameh. NPR's Shereen Meraji reports on a new English translation.
SHEREEN MERAJI reporting:
Shahnameh means Book of Kings. And if you're Iranian, you know the stories in this book. In fact, you might be named after a hero or heroine: Sohrab, Bizan, Tahmureth. Shahnameh's author, Ferdowsi, is the Homer of Iran. And Shahnameh is Iran's Iliad.
Ms. AZAR NAFISI (Author): The first memory of hearing the stories out of Shahnameh is like the first memory I have of eating an orange, or feeling the sun. It's that intimate to me.
MERAJI: That's Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir in books. She wrote the foreword to the brand new translation of Shahnameh. The translator is Dick Davis.
Professor DICK DAVIS (Translator, Professor of Persian, Ohio State University): First, the subject is the pre-Islamic--before Islam came--legends and history beyond, starting right at the beginning with the creation of the world, and the poem goes right up to when the Arab/Islamic conquest happened.
MERAJI: Davis spent seven years translating Shahnameh from Persian to English, trying to capture the poem's beauty and melody. In Farsi, Shahnameh is 50,000 lines long, and it chronicles the lives of rulers and warriors in Persia, mixing history with myth. Shahnameh's theme is good versus evil, and the best-known stories followed Rostam, a warrior who defends Iran's crown against tremendous odds, but Izana Fici(ph) loves the female characters.
Ms. IZANA FICI: And Tamehneh is one of the most wonderful women in Persian literature, and in Shahnameh. And when we talk about women in Iran, you have to notice that Tamehneh dreams of Rostam, and once she discovers that he's in her land, she is the one who goes into his bedroom at night, you know, and tells him, I want to make love to you.
Ms. FICI: (Through translator) She said, my name is Tamehneh. (Unintelligible) has torn my wretched life in two. I was born the daughter of the King Shahnama, and I'm descended from a warrior clan, but, like a legend, I have heard the story of your heroic battles and your glory of how you have no fear, and face a lone dragons and demons in the dark unknown.
MERAJI: Dragons and demons may be mythical, but it's the courage of the characters that Iranians believe transcend myth. For Izana Fici, Shahnameh speaks so much more to who Iranians truly are than what's on the nightly news.
Ms. FICI: Nowadays, when we talk about a culture in Iran or in Muslim majority countries, we're not thinking of the great poets and philosophers and scientists who contributed so much to the world, in fact, and not just to their own countries. We're thinking of Sharia laws, which would condone girls marrying at the age of 9, or stoning people to death. Shahnameh reminds us, first of all, that Iranian culture and history goes back 2,500 years ago, half of which was not Islamic.
MODERATOR: And Shahnameh is not just for Persians, says translator Dick Davis.
Professor DAVIS: I, for example, am not Iranian, and the poem really speaks to me. It speaks to me very profoundly, and my real interest in it is really as it belongs to the world. My first degree is not in Persian literature at all. It's in English literature, and I've studied a number of European literatures. I don't know of any work which is greater than Shahnameh, that has more of a kind of strong literary impact. And I'm including Shakespeare and Homer and people like that.
MERAJI: May Iranians say Shahnameh is a window into their world. For Dick Davis, every human emotion and situation is represented in the poem: love, life, death. After seven years of intimate study of Ferdowski's Shahnameh, pouring over each word and trying to find a parallel meaning in English, Davis' work is finally done. When I asked him if he was relieved, he simply said, I rather miss it.
Shereen Maraji, NPR News, Los Angeles.
BRAND: To hear Shahnameh in Persian and read some of the new translation, go to our web site, NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.