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Iran's Epic Poem Continues to Resonate With New Translation

Hamid Rahmanian was convinced the modern Western world was missing something big about Iran.

Living in his adopted home of New York City with his American wife, the acclaimed Iranian visual artist had come to see a certain weirdness in his world: Young English-speaking Westerners in recent years had become enchanted with stories of grand, dynastic power struggles.

Modern high fantasy such as “Lord of the Rings” and “A Game of Thrones” and ancient epics, popularized by everyone from the great 20th-century classicist Edith Hamilton to Brad Pitt as Achilles in the movie “Troy,” had permeated American culture. Meanwhile, a certain storytelling tradition in the same canon with the classics was nowhere to be found in bookstores, movie theaters or on television: “The Shahnameh” by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, a medieval Persian epic that rivals the “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in scope.

Drawing his inspiration from the aesthetics of popular culture in the United States, Rahmanian set about to modernize “The Shahnameh,” or Book of Kings, in a way that would appeal to those most unfamiliar with it and the history it represents. The result is “Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings,” released last year.

It was a truly epic undertaking, and it’s gotten the attention of expert observers.

“Illustrated ‘Shahnamehs’ are something that have been going on for hundreds of years,” Hirad Dinavari, specialist for the Iranian world at the Library of Congress, told CQ Roll Call. “[Rahmanian has] brought it into a modern era with his very fantastical computer-graphic renditions.”

The Library of Congress hosted a discussion on the new version in March, as part of the Persian New Year. For this coming spring, Dinavari said, the library is putting together an exhibition on the traditions of Persian literature. It starts with an early “Shahnameh” illustration and ends with Rahmanian’s version, which was translated into English by Ahmad Sadri. “The importance of this specific work is that it is reaching a non-Iranian audience,” Dinavari said.

Visual Storytelling

Rahmanian’s illustrations seem to soar off the page. Each illustration is a cornucopia of images that are fluid, moving and rich in details that would please modern movie-centric sensibilities. There are also rewards for the inquisitive viewer. Among the more obvious large peahens and cheetahs frolicking in the background of scenes between human characters, tiny perching birds, floral nuances and flourishes in the clouds form landscapes that seem to expand the longer the page stays open.

The Shahnameh’s stories span 3,000 years’ worth of mythology to modern-day Iran and the nations once contained in the Persian Empire. They are cut from the same Indo-European cloth as those Western tales: The names, places and animalia may be different, but the stories of star-crossed love, fratricide and redemption remain familiar to readers steeped in Shakespeare, Greek mythology and the other staples of Western storytelling.

Despite all this, the epic poem’s place among its counterparts was empty. Besides cultural deprivation, this absence from the American psyche could even have modern geopolitical repercussions. Without context, headlines and official state rhetoric keep the chasm between American and Iranian cultures ever wider.

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