Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ferdowsi ... and Azar Nafisi

I have two books in front of me. One is the galley for Dick Davis’s Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. The other is a much thinner book, designed for young readers and 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 Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, to my brother and me when we were no more than three or four years old and later to our children. My father always insisted that Persians basically do not have a home except in their literature, especially their poetry. This country, our country, he would say, has been attacked and invaded numerous times, and each time, when the Persian had lost their sense of their own history, culture and language, they found their poets as the true guardians of their true home. Citing the poet Ferdowsi and 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.

No, this is not Nafisi’s tribute to her father’s book. It was meant to be a forward to Dick Davis’s translation of the Shahnameh. I think I should not judge an article by its first paragraph, even if that first paragraph is already one-third of the whole article which is only two and half pages. I continued reading with the hope of hearing something of Davis or the book, but alas the second paragraph is not that generous towards either one of them.

The second and third paragraphs are devoted to her father’s account of the conflict between Ferdowsi and the evil Sultan. She admits that Davis gives a factual historical account of the conflict, but she is more interested in her semi-fictional popular account of the conflict which demonstrates more her political views than her literally insights in this particular subject. This passage ends with “my father would say… we remember the king mainly because we remember the poet. It is the poet, he declare, who is the final victor.”

This is in fact Nafisi’s favorite theme: defying authority. It pops up in almost all her writings, and has become her identity badge, like the story of her own defying the Islamic Republic by refusing to wear a veil, leading to her being thrown out of Tehran University. (Of course later on she wore a veil and returned to university, but that is different story.) Here, Ferdowsi’s defiance has become his identity as well.

Ferdowsi’s conflict with the Sultan is the only story referred to and I’m puzzled why she takes nothing else from this remarkable book for which she is supposed to write a forward. However, she does praise the skill of the poet, whose simple and elegant style kept the book alive for centuries before the advent of printing. Nafisi is aware of his skill and says: “I paid more attention not just to the stories but also to the miraculous language and the poetry of Shahnameh, realizing that the poetry seemed so unobtrusive a supportive of the stories not because Ferdowsi was a lesser poet and better storyteller but because he was so skilled a poet that the poetry became the story.” I hope someone understands what this means and translates it. Or just let’s take it as a poetic expression and leave it alone.

The trouble is that for all this mumbo-jumbo, she does not have any credentials. She went to England when she was 12 and returned almost a year or so before graduating from high school. From all I know about the Iranian school system, one does not learn any literature. We all study Persian language, grammar and work hard on vocabulary and writing (dictation, not style), memorize lots of poetry, but we do not learn any literature. She had not been there to learn even that much. Her field of study is not Persian literature, she is not a medievalist nor is she in an even remotely field, such as art history. What makes her qualify to write a forward for the Shahnameh? What does she know about the work or the author, his style, his philosophy, his point of view? Apparently nothing. One can argue that she is recommending the translation, not the work itself. But does she?

She has foreseen this objection and is prepared for it. In the fourth paragraph, she explain how during the Iran- Iraq war, she gathered together with group of friends once a week and read classics of Persian literature. She mentions among them is well known author Golshiri. I think she knows, and we all know, that we do not learn any classical literature by just a casual gathering in the middle of war and revolution, blackouts, harassment, strikes, threats, food rationing, and millions other problems, particularly if one is a mother and a wife, and working, etc. If she does not know, we know that even ten Golshiris would not suffice. Persian literature, like any other discipline, requires systematic scholarship and apprenticeship, and she does not have it.

She moves on to the fifth paragraph which brings her to her main subject of Iranian national identity. She writes “I realize how right my father had been, for the Persians, the Shahnameh is like their identity papers, their conclusive evidence that they have lived.” It is interesting that all of the sudden all the university campuses are worried about our national identity, and all these academics are coming to our rescue to find us a home and identity once in Islam , then in fundamentalism, then in modernism, then in nationalism, and now in the Shahnameh and Ferdowsism. Please, please Miss Nafisi and Co., leave us alone. We are who we are. We know our identity perfectly well. Each one of us has a name, a family name, a certain property, a place of birth, and a pair of parents. We live in some place, and when it comes, we will die and will be buried with certain rites in some place. We all have a country called Iran and as long as the re-mapping with the help of political academics has not taken place, it is still on the world map, big and beautiful with the Alborz Mountain like a crown on top of it. Yes we had ups and down, just as others. And that is part of our identity as well and is enough for us, we do not need any induced identity formulated by Johns Hopkins or Harvard, thank you.

As far as Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh is concerned, one is a poet and the other is just a book. In fact I know for sure that there are some Iranians who place the Shahnameh next to their Gathas, but even those treat it like a book, they revere it and read it. That’s all you do with a book, really, what else? After all, what is the best thing for a world order? To put the things in its own place, is not it? Is not that what the Shahnameh is about?

Miss Nafisi finally says a few words about the Dick Davis. He “convays the unique poetic texture of Ferdowsi’s great epic.” And about the Shahnameh: “ ... it shapes and articulates those aspects of Persian culture that transcend time and space, defying limitations of history, ethnicity, nationality, and even culture. This book, like literary classics, captures and articulates passions, urges, aspirations, betrayals, joys and anguishes that are shared by individuals no matter where they live and what language they speak.” I hope someone tells me what is so significant about these lines. Can we not say all this about any other epics or classics? Is it not why epics are called epics? Is it not transcending time and space, the same as defying the limitations of history?

Could we say anything more trivial than this? I am sure Dick Davis and Miss Nafisi are both intelligent enough to know that much. The problem is they do not expect their readers pays attention to these details, or better to say, to read it at all.

It is so sad that a masterpiece of which we are so proud and whose appearance on the world scene has been so long awaited is so commercialized. It is so sad that Dick Davis could not find a qualified scholar to write a forward and introduce the result of his services to the reader. We write forward to a book because it needs one. There is a function in that few pages. It is not just a collection of pompous words that are either devoid of meaning or trivial and do not shed any light on the subject or the author or the translator who has spent 7 -8 years of good life to translate this massive work. Let us eliminate these two pages and a half and see what do we miss. What does it mean to have her name on the cover of the book? Even in her own field she has published only one book: Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her short biography, almost everywhere, she has to make up for this gap and says she is the author of Anti-Terra: A Critical Study of Vladimir Nabakov’s Novels as if it were the title of a book, although it is only an article. It is highly unusual to cite in a short paragraph of biography the title of an article or interviews. How sad it is that Dick Davis needs this flake to promote his work which is so great and for which we Iranian should be grateful.

Nafisi can do something useful instead. She can read her Lolita in Washington DC, among the neocons to at least redeem herself in the eyes of Iranians. That is what she is good at, so she had better stick to it and leave our classics to those who know it better. There are plenty of them around.

To read the rest, click here.