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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.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is simultaneously a departure from, and a natural progression of, the path Iranian society has followed for millennia. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 explicitly denounced the Shah, who had claimed legitimacy to rule through lineage with the monarchs — including those in “The Shahnameh” — who had gone before him.

The text remains a staple in Iranian culture and politics today. Since the 1979 revolution, officeholders including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have continued to quote from “The Shahnameh” and otherwise harken to the country’s ancient history to curry favor for their own leadership.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s current president, quoted the epic during his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last year. Drawing from the verses of Kay Khosrow, one of Iran’s most revered and peace-loving kings, he said, “Be relentless in striving for the cause of good / Bring the spring, you must / Banish the winter, you should.”

“Iran is so politicized,” Rahmanian said. “But imagine there was no revolution, no Ahmadinejad, no Hezbollah, no mullahs: you’d learn about Iran from these kinds of stories.”

The Library of Congress’ Dinavari shied away from talking about the book’s potential political impact but emphasized its cultural value, both for Persians and Westerners.

“There are lots of entities in Washington that focus on politics, and this is one of the few things that one can say really showcases the culture and the literature [of Iran],” he said.

At the same time, the new “Shahnameh” makes the heritage accessible to descendants of Persian immigrants who live in the United States, something both Rahmanian and Sadri said they had hoped to do.

“If there is a cultural DNA to Iran, it is all in ‘Shahnameh,’” Sadri said.

Not Lost in Translation

It so happens that Sadri, a professor at Lake Forest College and the translator for this new version, was also the translator for the line in Rouhani’s speech. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called in a favor with his old friend, much in the same way Rahmanian asked for Sadri’s help in helping create a text that would be accessible to lay readers but remain true to Ferdowsi’s time-tested lyricism.

“It has some grandeur to it, but it is very user-friendly,” he said of his translation.

Sadri, who writes in the book’s introduction of his childhood experiences with these stories, was more than happy to contribute. “Most non-Iranians associate Iran with oil and with mullahs,” he said. “Adding some texture to that basic knowledge, I think, is good.”

But it hasn’t been easy. This was Sadri’s first time translating “The Shahnameh,” let alone creating a new version for a new audience of people who are familiar with what he called the syntax of movie storytelling.

He talked of arguing frequently with Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard, Rahmanian’s wife and the editorial director for the project, over what passages to include and which to reject.

Working an average of 100 hours per week over the course of 3.5 years, he made illustrations to accompany all 500 pages of the translation. Each panel is a digital composite of between 12 and 120 different visual elements from existing paintings, lithographs and miniatures found in the poem’s manuscripts, making this version simultaneously one-of-a-kind and borne straight out of tradition. He spent 200 hours alone on the most elaborate illustration in the book and at times felt like he was, in a way, channeling Ferdowsi, he said.

“You have to be in love and also a little bit of a lunatic to do something like this,” Rahmanian said.

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