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The Shahnameh
Every time one of my Persian American or Persian Canadian friends goes home to Iran for a visit they always ask me what I would like them to bring me back for a present

September 28, 2006

Sometimes when the prospects look very dark and things like war loom on the horizon, casting a great pall over humanity like the negative era that Mr. Bush has ushered in, I find great solace in reading the classics to learn that everything under the sun has already happened many times before over the course of our five or ten thousand years of history. There have been great leaders who started out awful and awful leaders who became great. There have been weak little nations, which became strong empires and strong empires, which have rotted into ruin from within and fallen apart.

There have been visionary inspiring kings, who have become distracted by their obsessive love for a particular woman to their peril and demise and Queens who have lost their sovereignty by falling in love with commoners. There have been sons and daughters of sworn enemies who have fallen in love and eloped and ushered in a new era of peace and hope. It has all happened before many thousand times in every culture and every country because we all share the same genetic programs and brain chemistry, which evolve or change very slowly indeed not keeping pace with the rocketing changing technology around us... new bottles for the same old wine... people always driven by the same things: love, hate, greed, generosity, power, humility, entertainment, boredom...

There is also an almost universal love for children, which transcends all cultural bounds because with children in their innocence and belief, there are new beginnings and hope for all humanity. Children can overcome the prejudices of their parents' generation and be open to change and new ideas...witness how children the world over take to computers and the internet like ducks to water while most adults over 50 or 60 just can't seem to pick it up...

Every time one of my Persian American or Persian Canadian friends goes home to Iran for a visit they always ask me what I would like them to bring me back for a present. After satisfying the prerequisite amount of Taroff about really wanting nothing, deserving nothing and that their kind thoughts alone are reward enough for me, I usually end up asking for Tasbih or a Khattam ware inlaid jewelry box or a carnelian ring or once when I was really bold I asked for a takht-e-nard set and received the most beautiful and extraordinary one I had ever seen from a friend's mom.

Another time a couple, who are close friends of mine sold me an exquisite Nayeen for a song, a mere fraction of what they knew it to be worth and in fact they didn't want to take my money at all but I tricked them. I asked them casually how much a carpet like that was worth and when they told me, I said that I wanted to buy it and at that price over all their objections which were profuse...

Another friend of mine I made here went back to Iran for a visit and managed to look up several of my old friends whom I have not seen since 1979. The first thing they wanted to know was what to get me for gifts...

Anyway, last summer the younger sister of one of my dearest Persian expat friends brought me back a beautiful illustrated copy of the Shahnameh. I had never read it although I had heard references to it for many decades. I made several false starts but now I have finally started reading it in ernest and it is filled with the very sort of rise and fall of individuals, kingdoms, lovers, prosperity and pestilence, war and peace, intrigue and goodness... for generation after generation after generation, which is the very sort of thing I started this essay by talking about it. To read a classic about this gives me hope that humanity will survive and overcome the IRI, the Bush administration and the Zionists... just like we have lived to watch the rise and fall of the USSR in our life times and the independence of Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Ukraine and on and on and on which is still unbelievable to me... as was the reunification of Germany...

I am not immune to the suffering that people must endure under bad regimes and I empathize with how hard it is to change a regime and also to lose one's country and start over in a foreign land with a different language, customs and values. My mothers' parents each came over all alone from Norway when they were only 17-years old... I, myself grew up in Italy though I am an American and did not come here until I was sixteen. Because I spoke English as my first language and didn't look foreign, no one would cut me any slack when I couldn't figure out how to use the bus system or a pay phone...

I know how cheated out of self-actualization several entire generations of Persians feel to have been under the tyranny of foreign powers and their Pahlavis and then of the mullacracy. The brain drain of the Diaspora has left the fanatics with fewer  moderates to challenge them but in God's good time all this is going to change. One day not a single martyr who died from torture or execution at the hands of this regime will have died in vain because once the Iranian people get back the reins of power they will not make the same mistake again of handing them over to priests. I am not a Marxist but I have never felt comfortable with anyone who claims to represent God's authority on earth and what kind of a God are people worshipping anyway who orders high altitude bombing or beheadings? There was an America and a Persia, which the world once loved, before the militant fanatics took over and those beloved countries will still be there long after the fanatics are gone...

Where are the Fascists and the Nazis now? I never stopped loving what was good and great about Italy and Germany and Japan despite those dark episodes of suffering... and it seems that great artworks and films grow out of the labor pains and ashes in the aftermath but those great periods of creativity end when people become too prosperous... read about it in the Shahnameh... it happened to Zahhak, it happened to Jamshid and it almost happened to Key Kavous except for years of repentance and giving away his wealth to the needy which saved his soul.

But enough about these serious thoughts, what I wanted to share was my delight with the Shahnameh. As I read through one generation of kings to the next, I love to discover that my old friend Kavous is named after a King whom Rostam was the retainer for. And that his brother Touss is not only named after the town Ferdowsi came from but there was also a hero named "Tus" who along with "Gudarz" and "Giv" worked with Rostam.

I mean what is so cool about this, is that it is all new to me like the child learning to read or a teenager's first kiss... it may be old hat to all you old Persians, who from the time you were little kids heard the agsheks with their Setars singing the epics in the tea houses in your villages but I never knew who the original "Jamshid" was or "Farid" or "Manuchehr" or "Faridun" or "Farhad" or "Hushang" or "Siyamak until now!"

It is also obvious to me why I have never heard certain names before which I am reading for the first time in the Shahnameh like "Zahhak" or "Afrasiyab." Who would want to be named after a demon or an evil King and certainly not "Eblis?!" And why was the king of Mazandaran portrayed as a sorceror with an army of Divs? I wonder if this is an indication of a regional rivalry which probably still exists today?

But on the other hand I wonder why you don‚t hear boys named after the great hero "Zal" or girls named after his great love and wife of radiant beauty "Rudaba" or after Rostam's love "Tahmina?" Perhaps it is because Zal was born with premature white hair and Rudaba had to have a C section when she gave birth, and Tahmina's son Sohrab attacked his own father, ya' think? And why is no one ever named after "Keyumars" who started the whole thing?!

Anyway there are many lessons to be learned from the Shahnameh, which bear relevance to our times along with its lessons in history and mythology and I know that many second generation Persian Americans do not speak Farsi so I'm guessing they haven't read the Shahnameh either. I am only a third of the way through so I will report back to you again more about it when I'm done.

For letters section
Brian Appleton

Brian Appleton



Book of the day

Three volume box set of the Persian Book of Kings
Translated by Dick Davis

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