Azar Nafisi: My Father’s Shahnameh
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.