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Khosrow vs Farhad
Love in Persian literature >>>Also in Persian

February 15, 2007

Note. This speech was first written in 1991 and later published in my book,  Poetry and Politics and Twenty-Four Other Essays, Baran publisher, Sweden, 1996.

Many years ago, when for the first time I saw the romance of Khosrow-O-Shirin written by Nezami-ye Ganjavi (1158-1262), I wondered why he had called it "Khosrow and Shirin" and not "Farhad and Shirin".  Of course, in my elementary school books I had read about the Sassanid king, Khosrow II (d. 628) and his feasts and pageants, but I did not know that the name of his beloved was Shirin.  I took Shirin solely as a mate and partner to Farhad. After I read the romance of Khosrow-O-Shirin by Nezami, I found out that both Khosrow and Farhad loved Shirin.  With this difference, the former succeeds in his goal but the latter does not win his love and hurls himself from Mount Bisotoon.

There are reasons for my misunderstanding. What has been engraved in our Iranian collective memory is the illusory love of Farhad and not the story of earthly love between Khosrow and Shirin.  In our written and oral literature, everywhere Farhad, the mason,is known as the ideal model for endurance and honesty in love and, Khosrow as a lustful debauchee. I find the roots for this attitude in the dominant culture of our society in which, carnal love and joy is considered a sin and masochism and imaginary love is glorified.

Nezami begins the story of Khosrow-O-Shirin  with an introduction describing love.  He considers love as the origin of the whole being,

      The firmament has no altar except love

      The world has no water without the land of love [1]

Nezami's love is not imaginary. It only signifies the mutual attraction of two individuals,

      When the humors have nothing but attraction

      Physicians call this tendency love [2]

In fact, Nezami himself, is inspired by an earthly personal love. While writing his romance, Afaq, his wife, a slave girl from the turkic people of the Qebchaq plain in central Asia, suddenly dies in her youth. Nezami mentions her love in the succeeding lines,

      When I saw no life for myself except with love

      I sold my heart and bought a life

      I burnt every horizon with my sighs for Afaq [3]

      And made sleepy the eyes of wisdom

      I was inspired by love to write this story

      And I filled the world with the call to love

At the end of the story, when Shirin is dying Nezami writes,

      You are obliged to shed tears for this tale

      And to drop some bitter rose-water for Shirin [4]

      Because that short-lived beloved

      Withered like a flower in her youth

      She walked briskly like my Qebchaqian Turk

      You might imagine she was my own Afaq [5]

In the text of this story, there are four sexual relationships which I would like to touch upon: First, Khosrow and Shirin; Second, Khosrow and Maryam; Third, Khosrow and Shekar; Fourth, Farhad and Shirin. Two women, Maryam and Shekar each represents a deviation from love.  In the former, Nezami criticizes a marriage without love, and in latter, the fleeting lust.  The marriage of Khosrow and Maryam is not based on love, rather it stems from political expediency.  In order to crush the rebellion of Bahram-e Choobineh, the previous cheif of Iranian army  and to save his throne, Khosrow needs help from the Roman emperor.  He marries the emperor's daughter to strengthen his ties with the Romans.  By depicting the loveless relationship of Khosrow and Maryam, Nezami, in fact, ains at the foundation of traditional marriages. Khosrow must give up his throne, in order to win his love.  At one point Shirin tells him,

      My heart is troubled because of you,  Khosrow

      You should give up your throne, if you want me

      And don't taunt me with your sovereignty 

      You still seek a solution through tyranny

      And your kingdom has made you arrogant

      Alas , this arrogance distances you from love

      You do not need me or my love

      Do you want a kingdom or true love?

      One who falls in love, should be suppliant

      Because love does not need those who are not needy[6]

Shekar is Maryam upside down.  Khosrow is charmed by her coquetry and longs for her possession. Shekar, however, is smart.  Instead of herself, she sends one of her slave-girls to the king's chamber at the first night. Later Shekar allows Khosrow to sleep with her only when the king legally marries her as a free woman. Thus, Nezami does not oppose men's debauchery, as long as it is sanctified by religion.  Nevertheless, he finds this kind of pleasure ephemeral and looks for ideal love. The short-lived love is superficial; whereas the real love is essential.  As seen in sugar (Shekar) which is a form of sweetness, but the sweet (Shirin) is itself the essence of confection,

      There is an obvious difference between Shirin and Shekar

      Because Shirin is the soul and Shekar substitutes soul

      His heart said I must have Shirin soon

      Because Shekar does not sustain my joy[7]

Farhad's love for Shirin is imaginary. It has the same ratio to real love that the Platonic Ideas have to the real objects.  Farhad represents the perfection of selflessness and absolute purity in love.  In order to reach his beloved, he is ready to literally chip away at a mountain with his adze. Farhad is not motivated by sexual desire.  For example, once Shirin almost falls from her horse and Farhad rushes to help Shirin without touching her "unlawfully",

      They say that her wind-like horse

      Once slipped when that jewel was riding it

      As the lover saw that his beloved was about

      To fall to the ground from her swift steed 

      He lifted the horse by its neck on the spot

      With its kingly rider still on its back

      He thus took that fresh flower to the palace

      So gently that no part of Shirin's body  was harmed

      He put her down at the gatehouse of the guards

      And then from the gate he went on his way [8]

Farhad never directly expresses his love to Shirin. Instead he bargains for his love with his rival, Khosrow.  He is ready to demolish a mountain in order to beat his competitor but he cannot say to Shirin: "I love you." Farhad only wants the portrait of his love and  not her person.  Once he does not express his love to Shirin, who by herself has come to the mountain to visit him. Instead he prefers to talk to the lifeless image of his beloved inscribed on the rock.  In reality, love for Farhad does not mean a relationship between two living individuals, but it shows the obsession of an unsuccessful lover with himself.  In order to win Shirin's heart, Farhad never makes positive efforts, on the contrary, he hopelessly retreats to a desert and lives with wild animals. It is not the class difference that hampers this mason from winning the heart of his royal beloved.  Farhad embodies imaginary love, and for this reason he is trapped within his own defeatism.  Even if by conspiracy Khosrow had not led Farhad from the desert dwelling to masonry in Mount Bisotoon, Farhad still could not pass the realm of defeatism and won his love.  Farhad is the myth of love and not its reality. Being successful contradicts the nature of this myth.

Contrary to Farhad's unrequited love, the mutual love of Khosrow and Shirin is real. In the beginning, like day dreamers,  they fall in love even before visiting each other.  However, in the course of events, they truly make efforts to realize their love. Shirin gallops her horse toward Iran, and Khosrow toward Armenia.  During this trip,  not only do they have to change each other, but also they must be transformed themselves.  Khosrow finds out that in order to obtain his love, he has to give up opportunism in lieu of love (Maryam) as well as fleeting lusts (Shekar).  In turn, Shirin realizes that to win her lover, she has to take risks, even if society calls her names.  Advised by her aunt, Mahin Banu, the queen of Armenia, Shirin does not want to sleep with Khosrow outside of wedlock.  However, toward the end of the story, she becomes mentally ready for this "unlawful" act. When Shapoor, Khosrow's steward, comes to see her, Shirin sends Khosrow two messages.  The second one is as follows,

      Secondly I request that if he wants to approach me

      The king of kings must lawfully marry me

      If you don't want to fulfill my wish

      Do as you wish and thus disgrace me

      Otherwise, I will go on my way

      Return home and retreat to my solitude[9]

Khosrow and Shirin's love is carnal and playful.  They enjoy visiting each other, and appreciate each other's beauty.  They ride horses, swim in ponds, pick flowers, drink wine, converse and debate through Barbad's lute and Nakisa's harp. Shirin and Khosrow are two individuals with real bodies and souls. They are faced with an earthly love which requires real optimism. 

Of course, this earthly love proceeds in a male-dominated society, and Nezami cannot go beyond its limitations. Shirin follows the rules of chastity and virginity, whereas Khosrow makes love with other women.  Even when Shirin becomes mentally ready to have sex with Khosrow in spite of religion, the reader is not sure if this change of mind should be interpreted as Shirin's rebellion against social prejudices, or as a manifestation of her humiliation. 

The tragedy of Farhad and the romance of Khosrow and Shirin both have sad endings.  Farhad hurls himself from Mount Bisotoon, when he is misled to believe that Shirin had died.  Khosrow is killed by Shirooyeh, Maryam's son. Shirin commits suicide to escape sleeping with her stepson. In spite of this final similarity, these two types of love remain essentially opposite: Farhad's love is by nature doomed to lose, whereas Khosrow and Shirin's love is full of hope and joy. Is it not the time to dust our Iranian collective memory, and along with tragedies remember our successful stories? [10]

>>>Also in Persian

Majid Naficy's books include Muddy Shoes; Father and Son and Modernism and Ideology in Persian Literature. He lives in Los Angeles.

[1]    Dastan-e Khosrow-O-Shirin- edited by Abdol-Mohammad Ayati 2nd edition, Tehran, 1984, P.5
The English translation is by me.

[2]    Ibid

[3]    Afaq means horizons

[4]    Shirin means sweet

[5]    Ibid p. 326

[6]    Ibid p.238

[7]    Ibid p.212

[8]    Ibid p.184

[9]    Ibid p. 270

[10]    This text was written in April 1991, and was first published in Barresi-ye Ketab, Vol.3, No.11, Fall 1992, Los Angeles


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