A Valentine to Iran

Bijan and Manijeh


A Valentine to Iran
by Ari Siletz

These days when we find a rock with the imprint of a seashell we know it’s a common fossil. But in the days when Science hadn’t already imagined our world for us, the question of how the sea creature got so far inland, inspired stories. The ancient Iranians had seen rocks fall from the sky, so they imagined monsters called deevs who could throw rocks all the way from the bottom of the oceans to the tops of mountains.

There is a well-known story in which a deev called Akvan battles the Iranian supreme champion Rostam. But that episode doesn’t say anything about Akvan throwing rocks from the sea. Why did Akvan toss rocks to dry land? Was he fighting another monster, was he building a home for himself? We don’t know. Obviously large parts of Akvan’s story are lost to us.

I once saw a painting of one of Akvan’s rocks. A hundred elephants harnessed to heavy chains were pulling it. The rock had made deep tracks, and there was fatigue on the faces of the elephant drivers. To help lighten the load, magicians were casting spells and chanting verses at the boulder.

The reason for all this effort is seen on the opposite side from the rock. He too is in chains, being dragged by guards towards the same destination: the dark pit that commands the center of the painting. Who was the man in chains, and what had he done to deserve imprisonment under the rock of Akvan? The hero’s name was Bijan. He fell into this mess because people he trusted betrayed him. But in my opinion it was Bijan’s father, Geev that truly failed him. Geev had taught Bijan, how to wield every weapon, defend against every attack, and surprise the cleverest enemy. But he hadn’t taught him to be considerate of the feelings of others. That makes enemies of your friends. Also, Geev never taught his son about women. So, when Bijan met the magnificent Princess Manijeh, who was as reckless as she was beautiful, the hero was defenseless.

How is it that we know so much about Bijan and Manijeh when Akvan’s story perished in the fires of war?

There are legends about a book of ancient stories being smuggled out of war torn Iran to the safety of Africa. This anthology, called, the Shahnameh, was written in an Iranian language that is now extinct.

After a perilous three hundred years in exile, the book returned to Iran and fell into the hands of the great Iranian poet Ferdowsi, who translated the work into such unforgettable poetry, that the stories are now safe forever. The romance of Bijan and Manijeh is just one of the tens of Shahnameh stories versified by Ferdowsi. The story begins festively in the pleasure palace of the King of Kings Emperor KeiKhosro. There, among the golden columns, marble fountains, and silken carpets, Iran’s war heroes were celebrating a narrow victory against the rival Empire of Tooran. Ruby red wine leaped up in joyful droplets as goblets clashed in drunken salutes.

Suddenly the revelry was interrupted by a delegation from Armenia who had arrived to seek the emperor’s justice. Armenians were a subject people on the border between Iran and Tooran, so the emperor knew this was going to be politically thorny.

The Armenians , showered the emperor with gifts and praises and said, “Hear our plight o King of Kings. There is a forest on the Iranian side of our land. It gives us wood for our buildings, its meadows are grazing grounds for our livestock, and the fruit from its trees sweeten our meals. Now a band of vicious wild boar has taken over this forest. They have tusks like elephants with bodies just as huge. They attack our woodsmen, threaten our shepherds, and destroy the fruit trees. Your subjects in Armenia are suffering, oh Emperor. Send us your warriors, and rid us of these vile creatures.”

Now KeiKhosrow was a smart enough emperor to know that this delegation wasn’t there because the Armenians were helpless against their local wildlife. Despite the appearance of loyalty, the Armenians were testing Iran’s willingness and ability to give them protection. Their request for a boar hunt subtly reminded the Emperor that Tooran could always offer Armenia a better deal.

The Emperor didn’t want to lose Armenia to Tooran, so he turned to his champions and asked, “Who among you will take care of this for me?” The hall was silent. The war weary heroes had had enough mud and cold and sleeplessness. And though they could still be stirred against a more prestigious opponent, nobody wanted go against a dangerous band of wild pig on a purely political mission. So to encourage a volunteer, Emperor KeiKhosro summoned his treasurer. At this point in the story, let’s note the poet Ferdowsi’s elaborate description of the golden cloth that was spread before everyone present, and the generosity with which the King of Kings poured every sort of treasure onto this spread. The inclusion of these passages is a hint by the poet to his patron, Sultan Mahmood. The Sultan had agreed to pay the poet one gold piece for every verse of the Shahnameh. The Shahnameh is 60,000 verses long, so when the epic was completed, we were talking a lot of money. But the story of Bijan and Manijeh happens around verse 20,000, and gives only hints of the future squabble between the poet and the sultan. As treasure piles up on the golden spread, the Emperor announced, “Whoever makes my pleasure his pleasure, shall make my treasure his treasure.” Still the tired champions looked away. Finally, the youngest champion, Bijan, son of Geev stepped forward. But Geev, yanked him back saying, “Son, I don’t doubt your skills in battle, but life still holds too many surprises for you, and if this situation turns delicate, you could embarrass yourself and your king”

Bijan said, “Father, in judgment I am older than my years, let me serve my country. Remember, I am Bijan, son of Geev the breaker of armies.”

When Emperor KeiKhosrow heard these words, he praised Bijan’s loyalty and gave him the job. But he had also heard Geev’s words of caution, so he turned to the older champion Gorgin, and said diplomatically, “As Bijan does not know the way to Armenia, why don’t you go with him and be his guide and companion.”

Bijan thanked the emperor, but secretly he resented Gorgin, as the elder companion represented the lack of trust in him. So, contrary to what was expected of a leader, Bijan didn’t share the treasure with his companion in arms. This was the young warrior’s first mistake. And Geev, the father, certainly had the chance to advise him on this, but failed.

Bijan and Gorgin geared up and headed northwest towards the forests of Armenia. It was a pleasant journey through beautiful territory. Finally, one day they sighted a band of wild boar, and knew they had arrived. Gorgin set up camp while Bijan hunted a wild ass, which they roasted over a big fire and washed down with plenty of wine. After the meal, Gorgin stretched and yawned, and started looking for a shady spot to lie down and digest. But Bijan sprang up and began putting on his armor. “What are you doing?” said Gorgin. “We don’t have time to sleep,” said Bijan. “The boar could escape.” “They aren’t going anywhere, let’s kill them tomorrow,” said Gorgin. “No,” said Bijan, “We’re starting our attack now. I will use flaming arrows to herd them towards that creek, and then I will fall upon them with lance and sword. I want you to take position downstream and slay any that try to escape. Gorgin said, “Bijan, I was sent to protect you with my counsel. Now hear me. When you have wine in your head and a belly full of meat, it is not the best time to fight. Never underestimate the cleverness of animals. Let’s wait till tomorrow morning when we are sharp and at our best.” But Bijan would not listen. He mounted his horse and ordered Gorgin to do the same. Gorgin, still drunk with wine, lost his cool and said, “Well, it’s your fight then. My orders were to guide you, not to lose my life to your stupidity.” Hearing those words from Gorgin, Bijan spurred his horse angrily and rode into the forest alone.

The older champion was right, of course. The boar army had been waiting in ambush. Before Bijan could start his fires, they swarmed him, threw him off his horse and bit into his armor. From a distance, Gorgin saw Bijan get covered from view by a swarm of wild boar. His companion in trouble, Gorgin rode as fast as he could to try to help. But before he was half way there he heard a thunderous roar and suddenly the boar on top of Bijan were flung into the air in bits and pieces. The mighty Bijan sprang up fiery eyed, a dagger in each hand. Gorgin stood watching the battle in awe, as Bijan’s daggers came down upon the boar like rain upon leaves. Then the hero quickly remounted his horse and started a fire with flaming arrows, trapping the boar army between himself and the flames. The forest was filled with smoke and the sound of squealing. And soon Gorgin saw Bijan emerge from the haze with the mountainous head of the leader of the wild boar.

“Well done young hero!” said Gorgin raising his arms is praise. But in his heart, he had that “oh crap” feeling. He imagined the two of them being back in the Emperor’s palace, the champions gathered around them, marveling at the size of the boar tusks. Then they would beg the story of this great adventure, and Bijan would recount how he took on the boar army single-handed. And the Emperor would ask what strategic position did Gorgin take? Was he watching Bijan’s back? Was he slaying those who escaped? Curse that wine, thought Gorgin; he would never be able to show his face at the palace again, nor would he be welcome to do so. Meanwhile Bijan bragged loudly and made vain remarks about his deeds. Hearing Bijan’s boasting, Gorgin realized that the boy was too hungry for praise to sacrifice any of it to discretion. And that is why he had to make sure that Bijan never made it home.

Here Sultan Mahmood the Conqueror should have seen himself in the character of Bijan. The Sultan, who kept his treasure to himself like Bijan, was also vain like Bijan. His histories always mention that the Sultan was very handsome. Now I don’t know of any other conqueror for whom looks is a quality worthy of historical record. There’s Caliph Harun the Wise, there’s King Anooshirvan the Just. This guy wanted to be Sultan Mahmood the Good Looking. Of course the Sultan isn’t here to defend himself, whereas his nemesis Ferdowsi is here with us to make fun of him. Ferdowsi wrote a scathing satire in verse against the Sultan for not paying for the Shahnameh. While reading Ferdowsi’s famous satire, Iranians think of Sultan as Mahmood the Good Looking as the Sultan Mahmood the Uncouth, the Uncultured and the Ill-bred. Even the title of Sultan Mahmood the Conqueror loses it luster as it reminds us that he had pillaged enough gold to support a thousand poets, yet he failed to pay for Iran’s greatest epic. And if I have led you to believe that the argument was over money, let me make it clear that it was not. The Shahnameh was a revival of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture. Before the Emperor KeiKhosro went to battle, he prayed to the god Hormoz. He had never heard of Allah. It is Hormoz, not Allah that gives him his mandate to rule. It is Hormoz, not Allah that comes to the aid of Shahnameh’s heroes. Ferdowsi could have easily taken artistic license and incorporated a bit of the Koran into these ancient stories. Not a word! Though a Muslim, the poet makes his stand as a nationalist. Throughout the epic, he stubbornly avoids words of Arabic origin wherever possible. He says of his masterpiece, “ I have suffered thirty years to resurrect his own tongue to the Persian.” Do you now see what the gold argument was really about? What the Sultan paid for each verse of this non-Islamic literature was a reflection of how much he valued Iran over Islam. All eyes were upon him. If he paid too much, could he still justify looting Hindu temples in the name of Allah? If he paid too little, nationalists like Ferdowsi would skewer him in the eyes of history? This is the proverbial power of the pen, and Ferdowsi warns the Sultan, “Don’t hurt the feelings of a poet, for how I judge you will remain your verdict until judgment day.” And the Sultan, having disgraced himself, decided, that the witness to his shame, Iran’s most Iranian poet, must be silenced forever. Which is exactly what Gorgin was plotting for the young Bijan.

As they broke camp to head for home, Gorgin said deviously, “Son, you’re a grown man now, and it is time I shared a manly secret with you. Just two days ride from here are the pavilions where Tooranian princesses and their beautiful handmaidens spend the summer. The women are tall with long fragrant hair and lithe bodies. Behind those veils are faces soft as the morning mist, eyes alluring as dreams, and kisses, intoxicating as wine. After your manly deed, it is only fitting that you should delight in the pleasures of men. Let’s ride out to the pavilions, capture some of these beauties, and make Emperor KeiKhosrow even prouder of us.

The word “capture,” in Farsi also means to marry. And Ferdowsi makes deliberate use of this ambiguity. Did Gorgin mean that the wholesome Bijan should haul away a woman away by force, or did he mean he should court and marry one of these beauties? If he meant the former, Emperor KeiKhosrow would have been furious. “I sent you away to take care of a tiny pig problem in Armenia; instead you go to Tooran and start another war?” Whatever Gorgin meant, Bijan was all for it, so they rode out to the pavilions. When they neared their destination, Gorgin slowed down, causing the impatient Bijan to say, “Old man, let me scout ahead and see some of these women for myself. Then I will ride back and we will decide together if they are worth the effort.” Gorgin said, “Go, and be happy.”

Bijan rode ahead, and when he saw the pavilions, he dismounted and crawled through the grass towards the compound. He was so stealthy, not a blade moved to betray his position. Slipping through the guards like a phantom, he climbed a tall tree that gave him good cover, and afforded him a perfect view of the grounds.

Meanwhile, inside the fanciest tent, the daughter of the king of Tooran, Princess Manijeh had had enough of jugglers and minstrels. She was throwing a tantrum of boredom. Running out of options, one of the handmaidens finally said, “Why don’t we introduce the Princess to that stealthy warrior who has been checking us out from the top of that yon tree.”

“What stealthy warrior?” said Princess Manijeh, suddenly sobering.

Casually, so the guards wouldn’t notice, the Princess and her handmaidens went out for a stroll. From his perch Bijan saw Manijeh and nearly fell out of the tree. Manijeh, seeing Bijan, quickly ordered everyone back to her tent and there commanded, “Hurry, bring him to me, or the fire of my yearning will burn the world.”

Manijeh’s governess went to the tree, and quietly called Bijan down. “Tell me you have not seen the face of my mistress and I will not call the guards,” she whispered. Bijan took off his diamond-studded armband and showed it to the woman. “I have seen your mistress’s face, and this is for you, if you take her on another stroll so I can see her face again. The governess replied knowingly, “And what would you give me if I arranged for you to meet the princess in her tent?”

That night the maidens smuggled Bijan into Princess Manijeh’s tent. Then they curtsied and left the two of them alone.

“You better be interesting,” said Manijeh. “The only reason you are alive is because I’m bored.” The Champion told her about his mission to slay the boar, and how he had incidentally heard about her camp in the woods. All the time Bijan was talking, Manijeh’s eyes could see only his mouth, his eyes, and the powerful arms reenacting the thrust of dagger.

“When the wild boars bit in to your armor, did they wound you?” Manijeh asked.

“Yes,” said Bijan.

“Where?” Manijeh asked.

“Right here,” said Bijan.

“Show me.”

Bijan showed her.

The princess ran her hand softly over the gash and whispered, “Unbelievable courage.”

The two spent three days and nights together, and Ferdowsi says they drank, and listened to music. Whatever else they did he does not detail.

At the end of the three-day long first date, Bijan finally got to his feet and said, “Well, time to go.”

The spoiled Manijeh said, “But I don’t want you to go. Please, stay as long as I want you to.”

“I’ve got to report back to the Emperor.”

“Then haul me away with you. Go ahead and take me. I won’t scream. It is what you came here for. Isn’t it?”

“Umm, I can’t right now. But I promise I will be back for you.”

“When? What month, what season?”

Finally Bijan said, “Look my beauty, let’s be reasonable. You are the daughter of the king of Tooran, my emperor’s greatest enemy.”

Manijeh turned livid, stamped her foot down, and shrieked, “Well you should have thought of that before you sneaked into the compound. You creep!”

“Honest, I didn’t know this would happen. I’m so sorry.”

So Manijeh changed her tactics. “Will you at least give me one more night,” she said tears in her eyes.

Bijan had never seen tears like hers. Drops of dew on a rose petal “O.K., one more night,” he sighed, “and then it has to be goodbye for us.”

That afternoon Manijeh’s handmaidens were grooming her when she suddenly grabbed the brush and threw it down.

“Why so upset, my girl?” Her governess asked.

Manijeh said, “Tonight, when I ask the maids to bring wine for Bijan, I want you to spike it with a strong sleeping potion.”

“But Princess…”

“Do it!” Manijeh ordered.

And so the next day as Manijeh and her entourage packed to head back to the palace, the unconscious champion was stuffed into a large trunk and hauled along as part of the royal baggage. Geev should have warned Bijan: you don’t haul away a Tooranian woman; she hauls you away. Throughout the Shahnameh, so many Tooranian women capture Iran’s finest men that they leave virtually nothing for Iranian women. In fact it is no longer a secret that the Emperor KeiKhosro himself is Tooranian-- on his mother’s side.

When Bijan woke up, Manijeh was at his side, but he knew right away that they were no longer in a tent. He stumbled groggily towards the window and looked out. As far as his eyes could see, there were towers and domes, houses, gardens and fields beyond.

Bijan went pale, “Oh, great Hormuz, where are we?”

“Tooran’s capital,” Manijeh said. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Beautiful as a beheading. Manijeh what have you done?”

“Don’t worry love, you’ll be safe here in the women’s harem.”

Back in the real world, as Ferdowsi looked for a hiding place from Sultan Mahmood, he knew that the Sultan’s harem was right out. So to duck the wrath of his king, Ferdowsi ran away to the chateau of one of the Sultan’s more cultured vassals. Soon this vassal grew nervous that the Sultan would find out he was harboring the eloquent fugitive. No more nervous, of course, than the guards at king Afrasiab’s harem who Manijeh had bribed into keeping their mouths shut.

Every one knows that sneaking men into the harem was par for the course. You can’t lock up a hundred Tooranian women behind walls and not expect there to be some trafficking in men. Traditionally, each woman had something on every other, and from this politics of bribe and blackmail there evolved ecology of silence. But Bijan had disrupted this balance. He wasn’t just entertainment, he was the enemy, a trained military man, and a threat to the security of the land. The price on his head transcended the politics of the harem. So, after a few weeks of hot romance between the lovers, somebody snitched.

On hearing the news, Afrasiab, the king of Tooran, went into such a fit of rage, his own guards feared for their lives. Then he summoned his brother Garsivaz and ordered him to storm the harem, capture Bijan and throw him in chains. The brother, Garsivz is one of Sharnameh’s most contemptible characters. The king always sent him to do his dirty work because dirty acts are harder to do than to imagine. How Garsivaz earned this reputation as a villain is one of the saddest episodes of the Shahnameh, but that’s a story for another day.

Garsivaz and an army of guards broke down the door to Manijeh’s quarters, and found Bijan at the ready with his boot knife. The boar army had been no worse, but there the hero had a sword, armor, a horse, arrows. Yet, in the face of battle, his training took over, and with a warrior’s calmness he prioritized his targets. First on his list was the wicked Garsivaz. But Garsivaz had his own advanced training. As a politician! He always did his homework on his enemy. On seeing Bijan, he acted very surprised and slapped one of the guards hard in the face. “Why did no one tell me, Princess Manijeh’s guest is Bijan, son of the famous Geev.”

“You have heard of me?” Bijan said.

“Heard of you? All of Armenia is talking about how you rid them of the vicious boars. There is no one in Iran, or Tooran that has not heard your praise.”

“Really?” Something didn’t seem quite right, but the clever Garsivaz knew that in this moment of high crisis, the young man would be prone to denial.

“Come,” said Garsivaz. “Let me intervene for you with my brother. I’ll counsel him not to let this embarrassing affair become public. We’ll sweep it under the rug somehow and arrange a marriage.”

Hearing happy words like that, Bijan let his guard down. The moment he did, Garsivaz’s men jumped him and threw him in chains.

After they beat and tortured Bijan, they dragged him to Afrasiab, and threw him on his knees in front of king.

“So,” said Afrasiab. “That cowardly Emperor KeiKhosrow has sent an assassin after me. Has he now stooped to the enchanting of women?” Apparently Afrasiab thought of Bijan as a James Bond type character who had used his sexual charms to get into the palace grounds.

But Bijan’s only concern at this point was how to shift the blame away from Manijeh and direct it towards himself, because by now he was madly in love with her. Manijeh had acted rashly, of course, but then he had been careless of her feelings. So he said to Afrasiab, “Emperor KeiKhosrow knows nothing of my presence here, and your daughter is innocent. On my boar hunt in Armenia I captured a demon and made him fly me past Manijeh’s guards into her chambers. There the demon put a spell on her, to keep her from revealing my presence.” Bijan’s first truly noble act was telling a lie, which for an Iranian warrior is the most ignoble thing you can do. Just one of the paradoxes of love.

Afrasiab turned to Garsivaz, “I have heard of such demons. Could this be true?” It was Afrasiab’s turn for denial, but this time the liar Garsivaz was staunchly on the side of truth.

“There are such demons, my Lord,” he said “but from the level of partying that was going on in the harem I would rule out that possibility.”

“Then prepare the gallows,” Afrasiab ordered.

“Yes, my Lord,” said Garsivaz holding his dagger against his heart as a gesture of obedience, “Gallows for two.”

“Gallows for one,” Afrasiab quickly clarifed. And he came up with this excuse to save his daughter: “Manijeh will live so she can watch him die. Strip of her royal garments and throw her out to fend for herself.”

“Sire,” said Garsivaz. “ If you show mercy, your vassals will dare plot against you.”

“Is that a threat Garsivaz?” Afrasiab roared.

“No sire,” Garsivaz squeaked and slithered out of the room.

As the gallows were being prepared, General Piran, high commander of the Tooranian army, was riding by on his way to a meeting with the king. When he saw the gallows, he asked the passersby who was being hanged. When he found out it was Bijan, son of Geev, General Piran was gravely concerned. Unlike the twisted Garsivaz, General Piran was a man of peace. Throughout the Shahnameh, Piran takes every opportunity to rescue what he can from the disasters of war. It’s noteworthy that the most spiritually enlightened character in the whole of Shahnameh belongs to the enemy camp.

The general rode to the palace, and persuaded Afrasiab to let his anger cool before he made any irreversible decisions. The death of Bijan would surely unleash a new and expensive war against Iran. Perhaps Emperor KeiKhosro would trade an advantage for Bijan’s release. After much persuasion, Afrasiab ordered Garsivaz to tear down the gallows and imprison Bijan instead.

Garsivaz followed the King’s orders to the letter and imprisoned Bijan, but he did this in his own perverse way. There was a big rock that Akvan the deev had tossed into China from the bottom of the sea. This magical rock was so heavy that no prisoner trapped underneath it could ever hope for rescue. So, for special occasions, Garsivaz had the rock chained to a hundred elephants and pulled all the way to Tooran from China. As Manijeh watched, a pit was dug, and the hapless Bijan was thrown into it. Then a hundred elephants harnessed to chains dragged the rock over the pit, burying Bijan alive. Gloating from the top of the rock, Garsivaz then gave Bijan the devastating revelation that it was his own companion in arms, Gorgin, that had plotted this fate.

Meanwhile in Iran, Gorgin returned to the Emperor’s palace without Bijan. He bowed and placed the head of the leader of the wild boar in front of the throne. Geev, standing beside Emperor KeiKhosro asked, “Where’s my son, Gorgin?”

“Sorry, Geev,” said Gorgin. “We defeated the boar army, and we were on our way back, when Bijan spotted a wild ass and went and after it. I saw right away that it was luring Bijan into following it, and I told him this may be a deev who has transformed itself into an animal. But Bijan didn’t listen, and followed it into the forest. I searched for days, but I fear, Geev, that your son has been taken by the deev.

Geev fell to his knees and sobbed in grief.

    Emperor KeiKhosro was also stricken with sorrow, but he kept his wits. “Gorgin,” he said. “It must have been a hard fight against the boar.”

“Yes my Lord, it was a savage fight. The boars knocked me off my horse and I fought them with daggers. I slew the boar leader myself.”

“Then how is it, Gorgin, that there is not even a scratch on your armor?”

A few “elementary my dear Watson”s later and Gorgin confessed the truth. He was shackled and thrown in the dungeon.

Then Emperor KeiKhosro told Geev. Don’t worry old friend. I will look into my magic cup to find your son.

This was the cup that the god Hormoz had gifted to the Emperor. Once a year on the first day of spring, its royal owner could look into the cup and see everything in this world, however hidden. Emperor KeiKhosro had been using it to find out who was plotting against him. Where was the concentration of enemy troops? A kind of magic CIA. But this year the king was using the cup to correct a mistake. He should have anticipated Gorgin and Bijan’s resentment of each other. Elementary, really.

Staring into the divine cup, KeiKhosro saw a beggar woman shoving scraps of food under a big rock. Then he saw Bijan trapped in a pit underneath.

The king emerged from the sacred chamber and immediately summoned his supreme champion Rostam. Rostam who had twice battled Akvan the Deev and lived, asked KeiKhosro to give him a treasure of gold, silk and spices so that he could enter Tooran posing as a merchant. Then, after paying a visit to Gorgin in the king’s dungeons, he set out for Tooran.

Arriving in the capital city of Tooran, Rostam set up shop as trader and began keeping an ear out for Bijan’s whereabouts. One day, as he was having a luncheon of roast chickens, a beggar woman crept in and hoarsely whispered, “Is it true you are from Iran sir?”

“Yes,” said Rostam.

“Then I have an urgent message for you to deliver to your emperor when you return” she said. “Tell Emperor KeiKhosro that Bijan, son of Geev is still alive and waiting to be rescued?”

Now Rostam was a careful spy, so he said, “Look, woman I’m not here to cause trouble. Find someone else to deliver your message.”

But the beggar woman lashed out at Rostam, “Then don’t pretend you are Bijan’s countryman, you coward.”

The flash of anger in her eyes brought Rostam to attention. Who was this beggar whose voice compelled obedience? Then he bothered to take a closer look. Starvation and exposure to the harsh elements made her look gaunt. But beyond a cursory glance, she was stunningly beautiful.

Rostam said. “Look, the most I can do is offer Bijan my hospitality. Here, take this roast chicken to him with my compliments. And as he handed her the chicken, Rostam secretly slipped his signature ring into its belly.

The next day, the woman came back, this time radiant with hope. “Oh Supreme Champion Rostam, when Bijan saw your ring he danced with joy like a madman. And now that I know who you are, let me tell you that I am Princess Manijeh the disowned daughter of king Afrasiab.

Manijeh broke down crying, and told Rostam how at nights, she slept by the rock, slipping a hand under its cruel weight so the tips of her fingers could caress Bijan. How she fought his despair by painting in words the color of the sunset, and the racing of the moon through the ragged clouds. How, as she begged for food to keep him alive, she also collected sights and sounds, and sensations. A flower here, a song there, a quarrel in the marketplace, a comic face. So that at nights when Bijan threw his body against the pit in a cursing rage, calling out Gorgin’s name and vowing bitter revenge, Manijeh could calm him with the sweetness of the world.

She told Rostam how never, even during seizures of wrath, did Bijan blame her for what she had done. Rather he would imagine he was free, and dream up pretend lives with her. Every night they grew old together in a different way.

When Rostam heard all this, he praised the lovers’ dedication. Then, at night, Rostam and Manijeh rode out to the rock. As they neared their destination, Rostam felt a familiar apprehension. Twice he had tangled with Akvan the deev and had felt the spirit of Akvan’s master, the Evil Mind, Ahriman. The sensation of evil present told Rostam that Akvan’s rock was bracing for the battle.

When Rostam and Manijeh arrived, Bijan was still celebrating with a voice full of hope. Rostam reassured the young man and passed on the greetings of Geev, the emperor, and all the rest of the court. Then he told Bijan of his visit with Gorgin. On the mere mention of Gorgin’s name, Bijan suddenly went into a rage, pummeled the walls of the pit, roaring crude oaths of vengeance. Rostam said, “Bijan, Gorgin regrets what he has done. The burden of guilt on his conscience is heavier than this rock.”

Bijan laughed bitterly and said, “Don’t intervene for that traitor, Rostam. If only the power of my anger were in my arms, I could lift this rock by myself. Now free me as your king has commanded you.”

Then Rostam said, “I can’t Bijan. The evil in this rock dilutes my strength with doubt. I must take time to ponder.”

All day, the Supreme Champion sat meditating on his dilemma. His strength, a gift from Hormoz, was a sacred trust, and wouldn’t let itself be used to serve the Evil Mind . If he let Bijan out, Gorgin’s blood would be shed. But the Evil Mind would be served just as well if Bijan died in this tomb. When the board is all black and white, Hormoz is the grand master of the game. It’s when the squares merge into a murky gray that the Evil Mind cries, “checkmate.”

At night Rostam sat helplessly by the fire. Manijeh had torn off a piece of roast from the spit and was feeding Bijan. Her love defied the brutal impenetrability of the rock. What strength, Rostam thought, and recognized this as a sign from Hormoz.

He got up and spoke to Bijan, “If I am to free you, we will need to combine our strengths.”

Bijan said, “I still have much left in me. Tell me what I must do?”

“This will take a lot of courage.”

“I am ready for any challenge, Rostam. As long as it gets me out of here.”

“This will be a far greater challenge that you have faced in your young life,” Rostam said.

“Just tell me what I must do?’

“You must forgive Gorgin.”

There was silence.

Then Manijeh knelt down and through the crack Bijan saw the torment and sorrow in her sunburnt face. She was in pain and love would not let that stand.

“What I have suffered to this day,” Bijan said, “has guided me to this place in my heart. And now that I have arrived, I am thankful to Gorgin.”

Suddenly Rostam felt the power of Hormoz surge through his body. With a cry he raised his fists, each heavier than an anvil, and brought them crashing down upon the rock. The blow started a shock wave that rippled across the plain bouncing boulders in its path. Having stunned the rock thus, Rostam lifted its mighty mass way over his head, and tossed it up into the night sky, where it thundered and glowed all the way back to China.

Rostam then raised Bijan from the pit and the three sped to Iran on the swift back of Rostam’s horse. On their arrival Geev, with tears of joy running down his eyes, rocked his son in his embrace. Then Gorgin came forward and he and Bijan apologized to each other, putting the past behind them. During the banquet in their honor, Emperor KeiKhosro was chatting with the magnificent Manijeh. Seeing how the Evil Mind had tried to use her love to inflict sorrow on the world, he marveled at the way this pampered Princess had held off disaster until help arrived. Then the King of Kings commanded the crowd to silence, declared Manijeh to be his own daughter, and ordered Bijan to marry her.

Love and forgiveness brought a happy ending to the story of Bijan and Manijeh. And perhaps it was this story that led Sultan Mahmood to forgive Ferdowsi’s insolence, and send the old poet the gold along with an apology. But the Sultan’s repentance came too late for a happy ending. As the bags of gold entered through the Eastern gate on the backs of camels, Ferdowsi’s coffin was being carried out of the Western gate on its way to the cemetery.

We really needn’t feel bad for Ferdowsi, though. If you visit his tomb in Khorasan you will see that he is buried on his own property, and not in a cemetery as the anecdote would have us believe This suggests that he came from a family of wealthy landowners and didn’t need the Sultan’s money to finish his book. In fact some people say Ferdowsi started the Shahnameh 19 years before Sultan Mahmood even came to power, and Ferdowsi’s famous diatribe against the Sultan is likely a forgery. The confrontation between Sultan Mahmood and Ferdowsi is a patriotic myth, which serves to encourage Iranians to define themselves more by their ancient culture, and less by Islam. Otherwise the poet and the sultan may never have even met.

And now that we have caught myth in the act of bringing together two strangers out of history, we wonder whether the real Bijan and Manijeh ever met. All we know for sure is that some courageous act of love and forgiveness thousands of years ago brought them together into the same story today, so that they could be remembered together, happily ever after.

Visit arisiletz.com

In this adaptation of Bijan and Manijeh some aspects of the drama have been expanded, with accompanying minor changes in the specifics of the events. Care was taken however not to stray from the basic storyline, and never to contradict the (presumed) original intent, even as that intent has been augmented. Also, a non-sequitur battle scene has been deleted. This is Ferdowsi’s equivalent of a car chase scene, which weakens his otherwise beautiful story. I encourage the English reader to refer to Dick Davis’ translation of the Shahnameh for a precise rendition. Persian readers, please refer to the original work, beautifully illustrated versions of which are likely on your coffee table already.


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Leil-zilla, copyright permission

by Ari Siletz on

"...rounding up their audience in a fashion similar to fishing with dynamite..." "'bite here' sign!"

If you see these clever expressions in my future writings, please condsider yourself silently acknowledged.

Also, to add my "first childhood Shahnameh experience" yarn to the comment pot, it happened during a blizzard in the Zagros mountains. Our car got stuck in the mountains and we had to spend the night as guests of the local kadkhoda. Every one in the village came to kadkhoda's house to check out the city folk. and  to drink tea. Someone cited a Ferdowsi verse about about a spontaneous gathering, and suddenly the party went into "verse mode."  


on the importance of reaching out....

by Leil-zilla (not verified) on

Thanks for the wonderful piece Ari. Like most of us, I grew up hearing, and then reading the Shahnameh. My father used the Shahnameh to teach me about nationalism, and I've always heard the Shahname's teachings, the explicit, as well as the ones implied in-between the lines, very close to my heart.

Although the Farsi (that's right. I said it!) we speak today is very similar to the Farsi spoken during Ferdowsi's time, I see Ari's touch of modernization, updating, and the basic intention to give the modern reader a carpet to sweep unanswered questions under (great analogy Ari) as very appropriate and necessary.

I'd like to compliment Jaleho's childhood story with one of my own, and that is of unanswered questions. When I think back to my early days of reading Shahnameh, what I remember most are all the "how come," "Why not," and "why didn't he just" type questions. Admittedly, I was much younger then and was also reading unscholarly selections and translations of the Shahnameh, ridden with misprints and edited to "fit the page" rather than the content. Thus I agree that some of my confusion may have been because of lack of life experience (especially at the time) and using questionable sources. However, all this aside, there is something to be said about character development and maximizing the potential of plots and sub plots in Ferdowsi's work; where his contemporaries may have not batted an eye before accepting some of Ferdowsi's assertions & assumptions, the modern reader (and perhaps I should take it further by saying "the modern non-Iranian reader), from time to time, needs either a little bit more clearly identified meat on the bone (with a "bite here" sign maybe), or basis for plausible deniability (hence the carpet).

What Ari is doing is not just translating. He's culturally and socially re-contextualizing in order to create, maintain or re-establish his connection with the audience, which is now broader than anything Ferdowsi could have imagined.

We are all scholars here, and are familiar with the romance of verbatim adherence to something in its original classic form. However, in this time of 300's (which I've yet to see) and Troy's (has anyone seen that short piece from Troy that's been dubbed to Farsi?) where they are rounding up their audience in a fashion similar to fishing with dynamite, even the Hakim himself would warrant countermeasures which do not compromise the intent of the original work.


Dear Ari, thanks for the clarification

by Jaleho on

I did not mean to be pedantic or sparring, as I am really not any literary buff. Like many Iranians, I grew up listening to my father interjecting a moral lesson or two from Saddi or Ferdowsi, adorning political discussions with quotes from Esghi , Obeid, Iraj or Bahar, afternoon tea while listening to impassioned reciting of Hafez, type of stuff that probably went on in your house when you grew up. But, more to your point, I had a dear old romantic aunt who interjected her own psychology with Ferdowsi stories when I was a child, well before being able to read Shanameh on my own. Thus, for me Bijan for example is not only the real passionate young pahlevan which Ferdowsi describes, but he's even more imbued with those attributes maybe from the childhood pictures formed in my brain from descriptions by my aunt's night stories. Similarly, Geev is the poor father who is so miserable about his sole son putting himself in danger, and my aunt's tears were probably added to those of Geeve's when he doesn't see Bijan return with devious, yet remorseful Gorgin. In other word, probably her rendition formed in my brain, I had just nodded my own head in agreement when I read Ferdowsi myself.


So rather than exchanging spurs, I was just curious to get the central point of your rendition. And, I understand that in the short writing you have addressed many related stories about Ferdowsi  beyond the Bijan and Manijeh story. The stories surrounding Sultan Mahmood and his relation to Ferdowsi, the related myths about the monetary payment to the poet from the Sultan, and issue of the poet's adulation of the Sultan and the later satire about him, all in the short span of retelling of a love story was nicely done. In the absence of great aunts like I had when I grew up, and "dar in dyar ghorbat," your reigniting the interest in true Iranian treasures with your fluid writing is very much appreciated. That is reflected in Iranian Reader's attempt to forward your article as a valentine day link.


And, no, I have not seen Troy. I have always loved the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian writings, in particular those having to do with origin of different gods. Funny enough, Homer's Odysseh and Illiad although very revered and very accessible to me, kinda scared me! I guess I started them in a much younger age than I should have, and some of the gory stories made me quit reading the books until much much later in life. In Shahnameh, taking a refuge from the war scenes to the tender love stories was more automatic! I will get the Troy movie, thanks.


BTW, sorry for many typos in my writing, it was not for lack of care, rather lack of sleep, I am in the east coast! Thank you for your gracious reply.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

It’s fun to spar with fellow literature buffs, thank you for the challenge.

If you haven’t seen the movie “Troy” you should check it out as a baseline for how far modern writers go to adapt a classic for the contemporary mind (example 1 of hundreds: Agamemnon was murdered by his wife; he did not die at Troy!)  By this standard the amount of restraint shown in this retelling of Bijan and Manijeh should have me tarred and feathered for cowardice.


Nevertheless, the changes I have made are defensible on literary grounds as they augment the characters within the original framework. For example, you ask how Geev failed his son. Here’s the reasoning: KeiKhosro shows acumen as a leader by offering money to any champion who will help him out. He could have ordered them to go; instead he offers incentive (modern management). Geev has failed to teach his son the secret obviously known to the noble classes. This sticks out to the modern reader (namely me). The average Iranian youth couldn’t write term papers on leadership skills those days, but among the noble military classes, lessons in leadership and smart politics were critical to upbringing. Gorgin may well have joined the boar hunt for coin. Instead Bijan chose to sulk.


You say Bijan was brave to volunteer. But in the light of all the other brave champions not stepping up, the sophisticated modern reader would reasonably ask if Bijan would still have volunteered if the treasure had not been offered. There’s a starting out on your own theme here, with reality based motives for a young man.  Ferdowsi does not resolve this critical question of character and motive that the savvy modern reader would demand. In this brief retelling, suggesting that Geev did not raise his son well at least gives the reader a rug to sweep such questions under.


As far as Gorgin goes, his character needs to be augmented to make him more sympathetic. The reader should want Bijan to forgive Gorgin. You are kind enough not to mention it, but I added the part about Gorgin rushing to the rescue too late to make a difference. This does not alter Ferdowsi’s intent of showing Gorgin to be remorseful of his deed, it just shows him in action as being capable of sincere remorse. Otherwise the psychology savvy modern reader would have less reason to trust this remorse. They payoff in the forgiveness theme would have been less. By the way, Gorgin’s plans for Bijan are more severe than merely making him “bad naam.” I believe these are the verse you are referring to:


Bedelash andar aamad az on kaar dard

Zeh bad naameeh kheesh tarseed mard,

Delash raa bepeecheed Ahreemana

Badee saakhtan khaast bar Bijhana.


The fear of “bad naamee” refers to himself, as I have reflected in the story, not what he plans to inflict on Bijan. The fact that Gorgin waited for Bijan and searched for him is a flaw in Ferdowsi’s rendition. After being remorseful, Gorgin may have hoped Bijan would return, but he had no reason to expect it.

 As you see, a retelling is different than a translation in prose. Modern contexts have to be taken into account, and precision balanced against relevance. It is however imperative, as I have done, to mention that changes were made and to cite the original source.  I will yield on the switcheroo with first associating Sultan  Mahmood The Hunk with Bijan The Vain and in the same paragraph with Gorgin The Remorseful. I needed a transition sentence back to the action and got lazy. My editor would have bashed me, and I would have been grateful, as I am to you. Well done with your critique!


Dear Ari, I am a bit confused of your rendition

by Jaleho on

of Bijan va manijeh of Ferdowsi. At first you do portray a vain Bijan, failed by his father Geev, and a somehow wise Gorgin followed by this passage:

"Here Sultan Mahmood the Conqueror should have seen himself in the character of Bijan. The Sultan, who kept his treasure to himself like Bijan, was also vain like Bijan. His histories always mention that the Sultan was very handsome. Now I don’t know of any other conqueror for whom looks is a quality worthy of historical record. There’s Caliph Harun the Wise, there’s King Anooshirvan the Just. This guy wanted to be Sultan Mahmood the Good Looking. Of course the Sultan isn’t here to defend himself, whereas his nemesis Ferdowsi is here with us to make fun of him. Ferdowsi wrote a scathing satire in verse against the Sultan for not paying for the Shahnameh. While reading Ferdowsi’s famous satire, Iranians think of Sultan as Mahmood the Good Looking as the Sultan Mahmood the Uncouth, the Uncultured and the Ill-bred. Even the title of Sultan Mahmood the Conqueror loses it luster as it reminds us that he had pillaged enough gold to support a thousand poets, yet he failed to pay for Iran’s greatest epic. And if I have led you to believe that the argument was over money, let me make it clear that it was not. The Shahnameh was a revival of Iran’s pre-Islamic culture. Before the Emperor KeiKhosro went to battle, he prayed to the god Hormoz. He had never heard of Allah. It is Hormoz, not Allah that gives him his mandate to rule. It is Hormoz, not Allah that comes to the aid of Shahnameh’s heroes. Ferdowsi could have easily taken artistic license and incorporated a bit of the Koran into these ancient stories. Not a word! Though a Muslim, the poet makes his stand as a nationalist. Throughout the epic, he stubbornly avoids words of Arabic origin wherever possible. He says of his masterpiece, “ I have suffered thirty years to resurrect his own tongue to the Persian.” Do you now see what the gold argument was really about? What the Sultan paid for each verse of this non-Islamic literature was a reflection of how much he valued Iran over Islam. All eyes were upon him. If he paid too much, could he still justify looting Hindu temples in the name of Allah? If he paid too little, nationalists like Ferdowsi would skewer him in the eyes of history? This is the proverbial power of the pen, and Ferdowsi warns the Sultan, “Don’t hurt the feelings of a poet, for how I judge you will remain your verdict until judgment day.” And the Sultan, having disgraced himself, decided, that the witness to his shame, Iran’s most Iranian poet, must be silenced forever. Which is exactly what Gorgin was plotting for the young Bijan. "



Now, the way I recall the story, and I am a layman and no scholar of course, is that Bijan bravely volunteers the fight with boars, and his father geev who is worried for his sole son advises him against the adventure. First, I don't understand where do you get the idea that Geev failed Bijan?! Second, Gorgin from the begining seems to be THE lousy character who does not care to help out Bijan in the fight. And after Bijan sigle-handedly beats the boars, Gorgin becomes very jealous. His main characteristic is being jealous and coward, not wise in any way. The jealousy directs him to make Bijan "bad naam," not really to silence him forever. Infact, the real "O crap" moment that  Gorgin had was probably rather when Bijan doesn't show up a week after being in Touran, and Gorgin finds his horse and in misery decides to go back to Iran without Bijan.

Besides, I am confused at the two parts I have bold faced from your passage on top and bottom. What are you trying to convey? That the vain Bijan is the prtrayal of Sultan Mahmood (on top), or "the Sultan having disgraced himself, decided that Iran's best poet must be silenced, exactly the way Gorgin wsas plotting for young Bijan?" Is Sultan Mahmood now like Gorgin and Bijan like Ferdowsi?I know that Ferdowsi has some poems in which he retracts some of his former adulation of Sultan Mahommod. But, does Bijan and Manijeh have anything to do with that? This passage seems to give contradictory results if you want to interpret Ferdowsi that way, no?

Also, regarding the middle passage that I boldfaced, Ferdowsi is writing the story of Iran from creation all the way up to Arab invasion of Iran, clearly avoids any mentuion of Allah, since the period he's describing had Hormoz, not Allah! Shahnameh naturally has a lot of anti-Arab and anti-Turk sentiment reflected by the tremendous nationalism of Ferdowsi. But, let's not foeget that Ferdowsi was a Shiite at a time that Tus was the center of Shiism, AND Shiism was in fact the embodiment of Iranian anti-Arab nationalism.

Here's a little extra background about Ferdowsi on that from Iranianca:



Finally, I know that the Rostam getting more power by idea of "forgiveness" by insisting that Bijan forgive Gorgin is pretty, but as you mentioned it was a huge stretch :-) I thought Rostam tells Bijan either you forget about a revenge of Gorgin or forget about getting out! And Bijan says, hell OK, and Rostam then throws the rock away. And right after he does that, comes what you call the "non-sequitor battle" that you omitted, the one which Rostam rushes to take revenge from Afrasyab, together with Bijan :-) :-)

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

It is credible that that Ferdowsi would be under the influence of his own times, as much as any artist can't help but reflect his/her times. But, could the Shahnameh be talking about the Mongols? No, because the Mongols weren't united as an empire until two centuries after Ferdowsi's death. Could there be echoes of the Achaemenid? Certainly, in a mangled way, as you put it. For instance the Shahnameh story of Queen Homay putting her son Darab in the river, later to be found and raised by poor folk, has similarities (and big differences) to Herodotus' account of how Queen Mandana's infant son Cyrus was raised by peasants.  The  Darab vs. Filqus (Philip of Macedonia, Alexander's father) story seems to roll up all the dealings of Achaemenid kings with the Greeks into one story. I agree that cultural memories are hard to suppress. In this case, Darab (often hastily associated with Darius) represents Shahnameh's cultural memory of the entire Achaemenid dynasty--all the way from Cyrus (born 600 BC) to Darius III (died 330 BC).


Yes Ari, I am aware of the

by jamh on

Yes Ari, I am aware of the fleeting passages, but my question is of a different nature.  Let me put it differently.  How can it be, that in the "book of kings", there is so much story about a time prior to the great empires and not much during these?

In my opinion, cultural memory is a difficult thing to suppress, the Arab invasion was surely remembered, and surely there was knowledge of what was before it. There were many Zoroastrian Magis still around carrying the oral history.  Just look at the Zoroastrians today, they still consider Cyrus as one of their pillars.  So the question remains, could it be that the glorious stories in the Shahname had roots not in the very distant past (of which there are no archeological records) or the glorious (and by glorious I don't mean anything nationalistic) historical empires?



Thank you

by Anonymous000 (not verified) on

for the beautiful short story. (I had not gotten around to read your older works, so this was most welcome).
I agree with you on that explanation and feel less concerned about submitting to the charm of modernization per se. What is beyond me is the home-grown indifference to the challenges posed to the earlier solutions found for the modern time's main predicament, the fading away of foundations. Take the human rights discourse for instance, as it is entertained by the wise both inside and outside. It seems like the envy is lacking here....those who taught how to respond to modernity's call by leaning on rationality, have doubted that time and again at least for a century, but our most sophisticated higher education classrooms in the land where tuberose smells different are still finding amazement (and also solution) in an uncritical faith in reason. How to put back reason in its place without the sin the cultural relativist commits is a challenge, but one worthy of the critical gaze of the intellectual, I think.
But this, we should leave here and enjoy the beauty of your writing!

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

An honest and private answer to the infatuation you speak of is that it stems from the emotions of wounded pride, the shame of having been left behind, the fear of being pushed out of the game, a touch of jealousy, and a lot of love for our identity. But to quote a misattribution to Justice Douglas"...ninety percent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections. " I use this misquote to suggest that faulty motivation in itself does not imply faulty results. We go to the Moon to show up the Soviets, and in the process create a milestone in human evolution. You're quite right though; we should stay alert to opportunities to break new ground. 

By the way, this short story is in context.


R.J. and E. Said

by Anonymous000 (not verified) on

Thank you very much, Mr. Siletz for reminding me of R.J.'s words on the subject. I wonder, at times, without much research or deeper thinking on the subject of course, what makes the so-called Iranian public intellectuals (inside or outside) so peculiar. What ties together as a social group those in-the-know and well-read and contemplative ones of that land is a rather infatuation (for lack of a better word) with the alure of easier response to the puzzle of modernity. A simple case in point is R.J.'s attraction to Indian pluralism, losing sight of the lagging economic development and fair recognition, let alone distribution, of social and economic rights in the very same India. What sets them apart from some other global public intellectuals coming from the periphery however, my own favorite E. Said included, is the latter's full mastery of those worn-out responses and the capacity to look for a new horizon. The point is that Said's work is fulfilled and that horse should not be beaten to death. The difficulty is in finding a post-Saidian path which is at once critical and constructive. Sorry if this is hijacking your essay's theme!

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Here's the Shahnameh anachronistically putting Alexander and the Greek philosopher Aristotle in Roman times               :  سکندر به تخت نیا بر نشست
بهی جست و دست بدی را ببست
یکی نامدار بد آنگه بروم
حکیمی بزرگ ارسطالیس نام  

Of course Ferdowsi (4th century A.H) could have known Aristotle was Greek becasue Arabic translations of the philosopher were available since the second century A.H.  He may have just been following conventional mythology. As for Egypt, Berbers are mentioned, but without Greek history on the subject of Egypt he would likely have been helpless, and I have no idea when (and if) Herodotus was translated into Arabic.  Later in the Shahnameh there's a tiny bit of Ashkanian followed by quite a bit of Sassanian.

Ardeshir, Anushirvan, Shahpur, Bouzarjomehr, Mani all participate. 

The Achaemenids were lost to Iranian memory until 1802 when the German G. F. Grotefend was able to tie some tablets at Persepolis to the Greek historical records of Achaemenid Persians. As an example of the state of affairs, Iranians thought Cyrus' tomb was where Solomon's mother was buried.

The purely mythological stories are truly ancient. Jamshid, for example is an Avestan character.



I have often wondered about

by jamh on

I have often wondered about the chronology of the Shahnameh.  This story (and a large portion of Shahnameh) is obviously (at least to me) from the times of struggle with the formidable and restless Mongolian empire, since Turan was as least as powerful as the persian empire. There are two possibilities, one that they are from the end of Achemenides to perhaps the begining of Sasanides.  And another that they would be much more recent, before and after the Mongol invasions.  Now the experts say that most of these stories are much earlier, but how can that be?  How can something like the "Story of Kings" miss out the most successful empires, or at least not be dedicated to them, but instead concentrate on minor historical figures "before" them?

There is no mention of Egypt in the Shahnameh that I know of, or Rome or Greece in any of its major tales.  These omissions are just as telling as what is there. Perhaps the mythical figures in the Shahnameh match closer the historical ones but not the ones we think of.

After the Mongol invasion, the stories of old would have been retold and exaggerated and all the names mangled beyond recognition.  But again, memories must have remained about the glorious past.  There are clues, such as Armenia.  It could well be that KeyKhosro is one of the Achemenides Kings, or even a general like Darab a model for Rostam.

As an aside, the mixed marriage of Bijan and "Mai-Je" might well serve to legitimize the then rulers of Eastern Persia as decendents of both royal lineage.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Happy Valentine's Day to you too. Thank you seeing value in the revisiting of our myths. Judging by your previous posts, I know you appreciate the critical role that art and literature play in directing History. The fact that the power of myth has not abated even in modern times is a psychologist's secret I applaud you for sharing.

Azadeh Azad

Beautiful love story

by Azadeh Azad on

Dear Ari,

Thank you for this lovely retelling of the story with the historical background of Ferdowsi’s poetic rendition of it.

I think it is a very good idea to look at our mythological stories with new eyes, to question traditional values and expectations by which our perceptions of ourselves are formed, to maybe change the social content of these stories in order to reflect the major changes in the roles of men and women, social classes, rulers, popular heroes and the citizens.

Dick Davis’ translation of Shahnameh is indeed the best to this day.

Happy Valentine's Day :-),


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Thank you for your insightful suggestion. I will certainly indulge this important angle in future Shahnameh renditions. For now, let me leave you with this touching poltical meditation on the arts, intellect, and power by Ramin Jahanbegloo. You may remember, he was the Harvard intellectual, briefly jailed in Iran in recent times:

"This retreat of intellectuals in the Middle East reminds me of Bertolucci’s film, The Conformist. I could not get this picture out of my mind for a long time. I did not immediately understand it. [I] was constantly reflecting on what in fact was happening. What was it that hypnotically bound me to that film? What was the tragedy? What was the hero’s drama? For me The Conformist is an example of the theme of “the intellectual and power”. The intellectual opts to compromise with power because of the force of circumstances and becomes a conformist figure. This state of affairs is wrapped in tragedy for the intellectual; he/she is sacrificed, whereas the conquering side is power. On one hand, the intellectual cannot avoid power in one form or another, but on the other hand, he/she cannot subjugate himself/herself to it, as those who hold power would desire. It seems to me that the problem here is that of the conflict between the spirit and power."

Yes, Ferdowsi was Bertolucci and the film's subject at the same time.

Here's a brief commentary on Jahahnbegloo's imprisonment: //www.arisiletz.com/commentaries/2006/05/prisoner.shtml 


Mr. Siletz

by Anonymous000 (not verified) on

It is truly exciting to read about your long-term project of re-reading Shahnameh in light of the condition of modernity. This is a window to the first thing that struck me (once your style had nicely washed away the mental fog of the day). Being a student of politics and only a pedestrian reader of literature, I was wondering if your narrative could take a different angle and tell a story about the relationship between the ruler and the learned in the historical context of our land (a theme you have touched upon but do not seem to consider central to your reading). What you are pursuing is no doubt more humane than anything I have to say here, but alas, I perhaps have yet to get over that politically-oriented mind of mine when facing the world and humanity.
A writer, I wish I were. My writing is trapped in the prisonhouse of analytics, but the only hope is that even on the plane of analytics, style and fluidity of language make a world of difference, otherwise there would be no more than suffocating bordom.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Happy Valentine's day to you too. And thanks for the encouragement for the task ahead. I'm hoping to eventually retell all of Shahnameh's popular stories in modern interprative format. Can't wait to get to Siavosh and Soudabeh. Soudabeh needs a retrial, which is set for next Valentine's day.


Dear Ari

by IRANdokht on

What a beautiful way to tell the story! I really enjoyed reading it and at times found myself praising your style and your wit outloud!!!  So many important real life lessons were beautifully embedded in your story...

You are one amazing writer.

Happy Valentine's Day and thanks so much.


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Good call! I told a version of this story to an audience of about 200 Americans five months after September 11 2001. They ate up the love theme, but the forgiveness part didn't go over too well.


On the margin of you...

by Francesco Sinibaldi (not verified) on

Here, in
an highest season
full of my care,
I'd like to discover
the sound of
a tin, and perhaps
my desire could
arrive in the

Francesco Sinibaldi

Jahanshah Javid


by Jahanshah Javid on

Enoyed it a lot Ari. There's plenty of love. We need more forgiveness, maybe.

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Thank you for your kind words. Yes, valentines do inspire, and I'm happy to see your soul participate in this wonderful tradition. I very much look forward to your questions and comments regarding substance. Since you too are a writer, let me confess that the decisions were heart wrenching as to what to include and what to leave out in this brief retelling.  For example, there is a scene after Bijan finds Rostam's ring in the roast chicken, and he is not sure he can trust Manijeh with the merchant's true identity. Begging not to be left clueless, Manijeh begins her lament thus:

بدادم به بیژن دل و خان و مان
کنون گشت بر من بد گمان

Exploring the emotions in this heaviest of passages while maintaining dramatic balance in such a short story was beyond my writing skills. I guess one way to deal with a block, is not to try to be a Rostam; just go around.



Mr. Siletz

by Anonymous000 (not verified) on

Thank you very much for this wonderful read. As amazing as it sounds, this piece helped me get over a difficult block time in my own writing -inspired, cheered up, lighten up deep sentiments? I'm neither sure nor interested to know. All I know is that it made my day a productive one.
You are a gifted critic, with a deep sense of compassion and a humane sharp gaze. May it arm you to make the world an easier place to live for any number of souls, through art/literature or whatever means you deem appropriate.

I've got a few comments on the substance and one or two questions as well, but left over work is now calling out and I'll have to come back to this page again soon. Thanks again!

Iranian Reader

I like your slant!

by Iranian Reader on

Please do more.

Ari Siletz

Iranian Reader

by Ari Siletz on

Thanks, Iranian Reader. I am honored that you plan to pass on this story as a Valentine’s card.

The liberties I have taken range from the very minor (Bijan was under the tree, not in it) to arguable interpretative ones.

The most egregious tasreef I commit has to do with Rostam’s lifting the rock. It’s not that he can’t lift the rock; he won’t lift it until Bijan forgives Gorgin. I believe Ferdowsi was hasty in not exploring the full emotional and didactic potential of this scene. The retelling patches up this missed opportunity by making explicit the part that Bijan’s love for Manijeh played in his ultimate enlightenment. Happy Valentine's day to you to.

Iranian Reader

Very nice, Ari Khan. Very nice indeed.

by Iranian Reader on

Terrific retelling. Excellent. A very rewarding read. And clever too!

Now I'm curious to know what liberties you have taken! Gotta go back to Hakim Abolghassem Khan himself.

And happy Valentine's Day to you too. I will use the link to this story as a Valentine's card! 


A Valentine To The World

by Dude (not verified) on

This story ought to be offered by you directly as a Valentine from Iran to Tooran, not as a Valentine to Iran. I am saying this so those of us Iranians who live in Tooran can point to to this amazing story from pre-Islamic Iran about love, sacrifice, and heroism to "capture" Tooranians' imagination and hopefully encourage them to pursue an intelligent path toward relations with Iran. It would be a great idea to have this story broadcast to the world via Omid!