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"Sohrab Slain by Rostam" painted by unknown artist c. 1444
From Mage Publishers' The Lion and the Throne

The Sohrab Syndrome
Iran's children today aren't faring much better

January 22, 1999
The Iranian

From Jerome W. Clinton's introduction to The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam. Mage Publishers will also be publishing Clinton's translation of Rostam and Esfandiyar, another portion of Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh, in the near future.

    Sohrab is the story of the brief life and tragic death of an extraordinary young hero, Sohrab, at the hands of his own father, Rostam, who is also Iran's greatest warrior. The death is accidental. It comes about because Sohrab has never met his father and was raised in a foreign land, Turan. Yet the question remains as to why a young man who is devoted to his father, and who undertakes a campaign against Iran in order to find him and elevate him to the throne should be punished so cruelly. And if anyone should gain by his death, why in the world should it be, Kay Kavus and Afrasiyab? The former is a dreadful ruler and the latter, the shah of Turan, is Iran's greatest enemy.

    The death of Sohrab at his father's hands seems especially wrong to those of us raised in the West because we have grown up thinking that the normal order of things is for sons to kill fathers, either symbolically or in fact. Since Freud and Frazer's The Golden Bough, we have even developed a certain soft spot in our hearts for patricides. However frightening and appalling patricide is, it has the sanction of natural process. The story of Sohrab fascinates us in part at least because it violates our sense of the natural order of things and adds a nightmarish element to a confrontation that is already heavily freighted with meaning.

    Virtually the first choice which Sohrab makes is the fateful one that assures his destruction. When he comes to manhood he questions his mother as to his parentage. She tells him he is the son of Rostam. He is thrilled to learn this and immediately decides to go to Iran to overthrow shah Kay Kavus and place Rostam on his throne. Then the two of them will return to Turan to take that throne for Sohrab.

    When Rostam is the father, I the son,
    Who else in all the world should wear a crown?
    When sun and moon illuminate the sky,
    Why should the stars parade their crowns at night?

    However appealing a young man Sohrab is, this decision makes him an enemy of the shah. And being an enemy of the shah makes him an enemy both of Iran and of God. As modern readers we are inclined to see Sohrab's desire to overthrow Afrasiyab and Kay Kavus and replace them with the far worthier figure of Rostam as commendable, as a proto-modern anticipation of rule by merit rather than inheritance. But the Shahnameh is the Book of Kings. It has as its the fundamental belief that, for good or ill, Iran will endure for so long as it is ruled by a line of divinely appointed shahs. Loyalty to the monarch is part of piety, and to turn against the shah is both a crime against the state and against God. That God would choose so bad a ruler for Iran as Kay Kavus is indeed puzzling. But both the prologue and the conclusion to the story make quite clearly that man has no right to question or dispute His decision.

    There is no question that the shah is the only one who gains by this tragedy, and the same may be said of many of the Shahnameh's other, tragic narratives. Does this mean that Ferdowsi himself was a royalist? Since so much of the Shahnameh details the terrible dilemmas posed for decent, moral and pious men, such as Rostam and Gudarz here, by the bad policies of foolish and inept rulers, it is hard to see Ferdowsi as in any sense a convinced and enthusiastic fan of whoever occupied the throne of Iran. He was a royalist in much the same sense that Shakespeare was. That is, he took for granted that monarchy was part of the essential fabric of life, the form of rule that God chose to give humanity society. Man simply had to make the best of it.

    But Ferdowsi was too keen and honest an observer of human life not see that the divine choice did not always fall upon those who were, in human terms, the best men. Indeed, the list of bad kings in the Shahnameh is a very long one, and that of good kings is depressingly short. What Ferdowsi knew was that the alternative to absolute rule by a divinely chosen shahanshah was not, of course, some better system, but the endless conflict of lesser rulers. If Kay Kavus were removed, all the various heroes who make up the court would become competitors for the throne, and the long and bloody wars of succession that followed would be even worse for Iran than the bad and foolish policies of Kay Kavos.


    * The Lion and The Throne
    Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol. 1
    Prose rendition by Ehsan Yarshter, translated by Dick Davis

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