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Xanthe Gresham: Telling Tales from the Shahnama

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

London-based storyteller Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler for Nowruz on March 8.

Arash Moradi and I are delighted to be returning to the Freer|Sackler with tales from the Shahnama (the Persian Book of Kings) for family audiences. It’s always a joy to be part of the museums’ annual Nowruz celebration. Revisiting these stories is like the deepening of a longstanding friendship: Each time we discover something new.

An epic poem consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnama took its author, Firdawsi, more than thirty years to complete. It is the longest poem to have been written by a single person.

According to legend, Firdawsi was supposed to be paid his weight in gold on the poem’s completion. While he was writing, however, a new shah was enthroned, and the poet was only offered his weight in silver. When the new shah finally read the magnificent poem, he was so overwhelmed by its skill and beauty that he rushed to bestow Firdawsi with the riches he was due. The shah was too late and only met the great poet’s hearse.

A heady mixture of tragedy and romance, the Shahnama piles up exquisite images and striking moments of truth and humanity. We can only scratch at the surface of this remarkable narrative, but what a rich surface it is!

On Saturday, March 8, Arash and I will perform three sets of tales:

12 pm: the story of Creation and the Demons, followed by the stories of Jamshed and Zahak

2 pm: the stories of Sam, Zal, and Rustam

4 pm: the tale of Sohrab, Rustam, Bizan, and Manijer

We hope to see you there!

See the day’s schedule of events. Follow the conversation at hashtag #nowruz.

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Celebrating Nowruz in Cities Ancient and Modern

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo Alex Nagel

Persepolis, entrance to the citadel with the Gate of All Nations, photo by Alex Nagel

Alex Nagel, assistant curator of ancient Near Eastern art at Freer|Sackler, is the in-house cocurator of the exhibition The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, on view at the Sackler through April 28, 2013.

Nowruz Mobarak! Recently, many countries around the world celebrated Nowruz, the Persian New Year. At Freer|Sackler, thousands of visitors of all ages engaged in activities that included music, storytelling, hands-on activities, “fire-jumping,” and games. I had a wonderful time helping the chess and backgammon players, working with local experts and communities, and telling people about the ancient roots of these popular games. But how was Nowruz celebrated in the ancient world, with its multiple religions, festivals, and languages?

Since the nineteenth century, archaeologists have excavated cuneiform tablets that refer to a New Year’s festival in Babylon, including a 2,000-year-old tablet that describes the Akitu. Held at the end of March, this celebration lasted for many days and honored Marduk, Babylon’s main deity. It began in the old Esagila sanctuary in the city center of Babylon, which had one of the oldest ziggurats (temple or pyramid-like structures), the foundations of which are preserved and known as “The Tower of Babel.”

On this particular Akitu-tablet, in the collections of the Louvre, the writer praises Marduk as lord (“Bel”) and his wife Zarpanitu as “Beltia.” During the festival, the king of Babylon would lead a procession with a statue of Marduk to the river Euphrates, where the citizens of Babylon would watch as the statue was transported by boat to the Akitu Temple in the north. On the final day of the festivities, citizens brought offerings and tributes to Marduk, which became a source of wealth for the Esagila sanctuary.

Unfortunately, there’s much less written evidence for the New Year’s festivities in places like Persepolis and Susa. Some scholars have argued that there is a special significance in the bull and lion scenes found carved on the walls of the Apadana, one of the many buildings still preserved at Persepolis. Thousands of tablets excavated at Persepolis provide important information about high numbers of livestock used for cult purposes that we are only beginning to understand. And, what about jumping through fire? While it is not mentioned in the tablets, we know that the tradition of fire jumping began with people aiming to ward off evil spirits. As shown by the number of enthusiastic jumpers at the Freer|Sackler Nowruz celebrations, it is still a good way to start the New Year.

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Inspired by Storytelling

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi; Rustam rescues Bijan from the pit
circa 1590-1600; S1986.267

David Nash is program assistant in the education department of Freer|Sackler.

While we were setting up for the Shahnama storytelling performances at this year’s Nowruz celebration, a little girl named Sophia and her father arrived an hour early for the first show. As they waited, Sophia explained that she did not want to take any chances on not getting in. Sophia is nine years old and had seen the performer, Xanthe Gresham, at previous Nowruz celebrations. Her father told us that as soon as she found out that Xanthe would be performing again this year, she made him promise to take her.

As they waited outside of the theater, Sophia asked us if Xanthe would be telling Rustam stories again. We assured her that Rustam would definitely be included. We also reminded her that Xanthe asks for volunteers from the audience to perform on stage with her and suggested that Sophia sit up close so that she might be selected. She sat as close as possible and, indeed, was the very first audience member to be chosen to come to the stage and help with the story. Sophia’s face lit up as a costume was placed over her shoulders, and she performed with the enthusiasm of a great actor.

When the show was over, Sophia and her father approached Xanthe and politely thanked her for the wonderful story. Then, Sophia added, “I’ll see you at 2:30,” the time of the next show. As they left the theater I overheard the father ask, “What would you like to do next?” Sophia replied, “Let’s go play chess. But we have to be back in time for the next show.” And, of course, they did show up for the next performance, as well as for the last performance of the day. Each time Sophia was asked to play a role in the story and each time her smile beamed. After the final performance, she told Xanthe, “I’m going to be a storyteller like you.” Then she announced, “I can’t wait until next year!”

An estimated 750 visitors came through the doors of the theater to attend Xanthe’s performances in honor of Nowruz (with nearly 10,000 visiting the museums on Saturday, March 16), and enjoyed the stories tremendously. None, however, as much as Sophia … Xanthe Gresham’s biggest fan.

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Happy Nowruz!

 

 

Celebrating the Persian new year at the Freer|Sackler

Making masks for Nowruz. Photo by Cory Grace.

The museums were packed on Sunday for our fourth annual celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Revelers of all ages spent the day listening to stories by Xanthe Gresham, attending sold-out concerts by vocalist Monika Jalili, and watching the colorful Nomad Dancers in the Freer courtyard. The day also included Haft Sin table displays, paper-flower arranging, traditional Persian food, and contemporary dance beats by Radio Javan. The younger set enjoyed “fire” jumping, and making masks based on characters from the Shahnameh, the Book of Kings, and other works of Persian literature.

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Xanthe Gresham and the Art of Storytelling

Storyteller Xanthe Gresham (photo by Mishko Papic)

In honor of Nowruz, Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler on March 4, to tell more exciting tales from the Shahnameh. Bento caught up with the London-based storyteller who has been described as ‘The Aerial Artiste of the Spoken Word.’ Xanthe has worked extensively for the British Museum performing epics from Iran, Iraq, and Ireland, Native American stories, and stories for numerous exhibitions such as The Magic of Persia.

Bento: Tell me about the power of storytelling.

Xanthe Gresham: Storytelling is pure enchantment. It actually is magic and you perhaps only realize how magical it is when you need it. I could go on forever about the power of this enchantment but I’ll tell you two stories. Firstly, I was working as a primary school teacher in a difficult inner city school in London and I was working my socks off. I would get up in the early hours, work until at least 9pm and only stop working at 4pm on Sunday. And I failed, and failed, and failed again with the children. I call it the ‘trying to sell a kitchen’ syndrome. If somebody calls you up on the phone to sell a kitchen, even if you want a kitchen, you don’t want to buy it from them. I was trying to ram knowledge down the children’s throats. And then I told them a story. It was for myself. I’d given up. A storyteller, Ben Haggarty, had come into the classroom the day before and he had enchanted me, never mind the children, and I wanted to have a go. It was for myself. I had fallen in love with the art. The children had never listened to me. They hated listening to me but now they rocked back on their heels, relaxed, their jaws went loose and they listened for 20 full minutes.

I was stunned. It wasn’t me. I had failed so many times before. It was the story. The children taught me I was a storyteller. They didn’t want anything else from me—the stories made us both happy. They comforted us, made us laugh, took us away from curriculums and deadlines and made us the best of friends. It was a long, hard lesson, hard enough to last a lifetime and worth every minute.

Second story: Life went pear shaped. I lost everything and there was nowhere to turn but stories.  They were all I trusted. I love that story of Azar Nafisi’s on your blog where she quotes her father talking to her as a child about the Shahnameh, “We have no other home but this….this is our home, always, for you and your brother, and your children and your children’s children.”  That says it all. It actually makes me think of the painter Marc Chagall who said, “Everything safe on the canvas.”  I think the other story on the blog about Firdawsi and the silver and the gold is wonderful. You can’t take treasure with you when you die but stories never leave you. They dissolve like pearls in your bloodstream; they diffuse into your cells and become encoded in the cells of your children. I don’t have children and yet I have thousands, because of the stories.

Bento: When did you realize that you were a natural storyteller?

Xanthe: I’m always realizing it, I hope.

Bento: There are a lot of strong women in the Shahnameh. Is there a story about a strong woman that you can relate to?

Xanthe: I love the story of Queen Humai, I’m going to tell it on Sunday at the first session of storytelling. I also love Tahmina, [who] turns up in Rustam’s bedroom having rescued his beloved horse and states her case like a lawyer:

‘‘My name is Tahmina,’ she says, ‘I come from a line of lions and fairies and I will kiss you if you dare me. I so adore you and with such passion, I don’t want to be like the weak girls in fashion, who sigh and cry and don’t get what they need. I would have your child if you agreed. Rahksh is your match in strength but I in wit!’ She spoke so wisely, Rustam never doubted it—she was black eyed, rose-cheeked, a rare gazelle—he had to admit he was under her spell….’

Bento: What makes a good storyteller?

Xanthe: The story makes the storyteller and vice versa.  That’s all there is to it.  It’s all about love—wanting to tell and wanting to be told

Bento: Were you told stories from the Shahnameh when you were growing up?

Xanthe: I wasn’t. But I’ve made up for it, especially thanks to places like the Smithsonian and the British Museum where I can listen to the stories along with the audience. And all audiences are different and because of that the stories are always changing and I hear different aspects that sometimes hit me so strongly I almost forget what’s coming next.  Working with Arash Moradi, who did hear the stories as a child is great.  He will often tell me a new detail, or song in rehearsal.  We’ll tell Bijan and Manijer on Sunday in the third session and he told me all about Rustam finding his instrument, the world’s first tanbur in a tree and taking it down, his fingers finding the frets, and playing. And then he played me Rustam’s tune. That was a special moment for me—it shows how the Shahnameh is not just a book, it’s alive, like a tune on the air, like words dancing between the audience and the teller.

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Azar Nafisi: My Father’s Shahnameh

 

Folio from a Shahnameh, circa 1525

In honor of Nowruz, we are delighted to publish author Azar Nafisi’s personal remembrances of her father and a very special copy of the Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings.

 

I have two books in front of me. One is Dick Davis’ Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings. The other is a much thinner book, designed for young readers. On its cover, above a Persian miniature painting of men on horses, is written in Persian: Selections from Shahnameh by Ahmad Nafisi.

In his introduction to this selection, my father mentions that the idea for this book goes back to the time he started telling stories from Persia’s classical literature, beginning with the poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, to my brother and me when we were no more than three or four years old. My father always insisted that Persians basically did not have a home, except in their literature and especially in their poetry. Our country has been attacked and invaded numerous times, and each time, when Persians had lost their sense of their own history, culture, and language, they found their poets as the true guardians of their true home.

Citing Ferdowsi and [explaining] how, after the Arab invasion of Persia, he rescued and redefined his nation’s identity and culture through writing the epic of Persian mythology and history in his Book of Kings, my father would say, “We have no other home but this,” pointing to the invisible book. “This,” he would repeat, “is our home, always, for you and your brother, and your children and your children’s children.”

When I was married with children of my own, my father would tell them of the conflict between the noble poet Ferdowsi and the fickle king Sultan Mahmud Ghaz-navi. According to this version, Sultan Mahmud assigns Shahnameh to Ferdowsi, promising to pay the poet a gold coin for every line. The king does not fulfill his promise, and instead sends the poet silver coins, which Ferdowsi, despite his dire poverty, refuses. Finally realizing the worth of the poet, the king repents of his behavior and travels to the city of Tus. He is too late: As his procession enters the main city gate, it encounters another procession leaving with Ferdowsi’s coffin. Implied in this legend, as in Shahnameh itself, is the truth that in the struggle between the poet and the king, the latter might win in this world, but to the former belongs the glory that comes with the conquest of that most absolute of all tyrants—Time.

“Nearly a thousand years have passed,” my father would say, the tone of marvel never missing from his voice, “and we remember the king mainly because we remember the poet. As Ferdowsi prophesized in the final lines of his epic, the poet still speaks to us:

I’ve reached the end of this great history,

And all the land will fill with talk of me.

I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save

My name and reputation from the grave,

And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,

When I have gone my praises and my fame.

 

Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter. She is currently a visiting professor and the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University. © Azar Nafisi, all rights reserved.

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